I-Team Exclusive: Maryland police agencies use drones banned in 4 states over security risk

A national security expert says the drone company that many Baltimore-area law enforcement agencies use may be leaking sensitive data to China.

I-Team Exclusive: Maryland police agencies use drones banned in 4 states over security risk

I-Team Exclusive: Maryland police agencies use drones banned in 4 states over security risk

Some states and federal agencies have banned the use of Chinese-made drones. The drones of one particular company — DJI — are favored by law enforcement agencies across the U.S., including some in Maryland.

A national security expert says the drone company that many Baltimore-area law enforcement agencies use may be leaking sensitive data to China.

Some states and federal agencies have banned the use of Chinese-made drones. The drones of one particular company — DJI — are favored by law enforcement agencies across the U.S., including some in Maryland.

Wilsinski, the drone unit’s assistant team leader, told the I-Team that knowing that key piece of information that night — that Linthicum did not have a gun — was crucial in capturing him alive.

“There’s no urgency to run into him, you can take your time, you can make it safe, you can make your officers get to him in the safest possible manner without putting their lives at risk,” Wilsinski said.

Without drones, Gahler said the situation might have ended very differently.

“I think, many times, something similar to this, without having that technology, without being able to be eyes on as much as we were, it ends with this individual being shot,” Gahler said.

Linthicum faces more than two dozen charges, including attempted murder of two police officers and armed carjacking. His trial is set for November.

Why have some states banned DJI drones?

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office has eight pilots and 10 drones — all made by DJI. Almost every Maryland police department and sheriff’s office that told the I-Team which drones they use said they use DJI drones.

Four states — Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee — have banned DJI drones because of national security concerns. The U.S. Departments of State, Interior and Defense has also banned DJI drones, which are made in China.

A 2021 executive order said use of foreign-made drones may allow sensitive data transferred out of the country. And, federal lawmakers have warned in hearings and letters of China “stealing our data” using drones.

Even with the bans, experts said DJI dominates more than 70% of the U.S. drone market, and according to the government, there are risks.

Brian Harrell, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the I-Team that data from DJI drones in the U.S. is at risk of being stolen by the Chinese government.

DJI calls concerns completely unfounded

Adam Welsh, the head of global policy for DJI, told the I-Team those concerns are completely unfounded.

“I mean, we’ve had numerous audits — cybersecurity and data security audits — that show no data is going back to China,” Welsh said. “We access data in our U.S. servers, from U.S. employees. They are the ones that have access to it.”

Welsh said DJI’s competitors are weaponizing America’s fears about China without any facts to back it up.

“We have competitors that that are not competing on quality, but trying to compete just on not being Chinese,” Welsh said. “It’s really unfortunate because these products are used to save lives. Those products are used to keep officers safe.”

Welsh categorically states that DJI has never turned over data from a U.S. drone to the Chinese government.

In Harford County, officials said the DJI drones are more reliable, tend to be cheaper and they offer more accessories.

“There are drones that are made here in the United States, but they do not come up, in our opinion, to the level that the DJI drones that we are using come to,” Wilsinski said.

Which Maryland agencies use DJI drones?

In addition to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, the Maryland State Police and law enforcement agencies in Annapolis and Carroll, Cecil, Frederick and Howard counties all have drone programs, and all use DJI drones.

Baltimore County police don’t yet have a drone program, Baltimore City is considering a drone program, and the Anne Arundel County Police Department has a program but refused to identify the manufacturer, citing “operational security reasons.”

When asked for his reaction to the national controversy, Wilsinski told the I-Team: “The DJI product has been very successful for us, and I don’t see us going away from it anytime soon. We’re putting the best product on the street we can to help the citizens of Harford County, and to back up our deputies to make sure they’re safe.”

There’s currently no legislation in Maryland that would restrict which drone manufacturers can be used by state agencies or law enforcement.

Anne Arundel County Police Department

The department uses 19 drones for various purposes, including looking for people in environments not easily or safely accessible or visible to officers; photography of crime scenes and crash scenes; incident command support for active incident and special event situational awareness; and training.

When asked for the manufacturer of the department’s drones, the I-Team received the following statement: “For operational security reasons, we are not disclosing the manufacturer of the equipment.”

The department does not plan to acquire more drones this year.

Annapolis Police Department

The department uses two DJI Mavic Pro drones to map crime scene investigations and crash reconstruction efforts.

The department does not plan to acquire more drones this year.

Baltimore City Police Department

The department is currently in discussions about possibly using drones in the future.

Baltimore County Police Department

Does not currently have a drone program.

Carroll County Sheriff’s Office

Among a variety of uses, the sheriff’s office uses four DJI drones for large-scene photography, such as vehicle collision scenes or large-area crime scenes, in addition to providing assistance to patrol deputies and investigators to find missing persons. The sheriff’s office often deploys drones in conjunction with its Crisis Response Team to provide scene and incident information to deputies and maintain an overall scene awareness.

The sheriff’s office plans to acquire one more drone this year.

Cecil County Sheriff’s Office

The sheriff’s office uses one DJI Matrice and two DJI Mavic drones in missing persons cases, investigations, emergency response and surveillance.

The sheriff’s office explored acquiring a new drone this year, pending budget approval.

Frederick Police Department

The city police department uses four DJI drones for missing persons cases, crash reconstruction, crime scene mapping and photography.

Harford County Sheriff’s Office

The sheriff’s office uses 12 DJI Loki MKII drones for search-and-rescue efforts; situational awareness; tactical deployments; visual perspective; visual inspections; scene documentation; overwatch; K-9 deployments; and missing persons cases.

The sheriff’s office plans to acquire several more drones this year as technology advances. The drone unit has submitted a proposal for several additional drones in the fiscal year 2024 budget.

Howard County Police Department

The department uses 16 DJI and Ardvark drones primarily for search operations, scene documentation, situational awareness and training support.

The department does not plan to acquire more drones this year.

Maryland State Police

The state police use 28 DJI Matrice 200 and AUtel Evo2 drones only to support official law enforcement/public safety missions. Deployments for the following purposes may be authorized by a drone unit supervisor or crash team supervisor: Training missions; digital photography at serious traffic crashes and crime scenes; and search-and-rescue missions.

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