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DJI fends off questions of Chinese government access to user data

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Drone maker can only share footage uploaded to its social app

As the company’s drones grow more popular, DJI is facing new questions about how much data it shares with the Chinese government. The lead sentence to a recent Bloomberg News report on DJI drones offered a warning: "Next time you fly a DJI drone in Hong Kong, authorities in Beijing may be watching what you’re watching." The implication is that the Chinese government could tap into live-video feeds from a DJI drone. The New York Times followed with a report that noted 2014 protests in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory, were sparked by fears of interference in local issues by Beijing authorities. The idea that DJI might share data shot in Hong Kong with mainland authorities "could raise eyebrows among drone users in the city."

But the technical details included in Bloomberg's story doesn't back up it's frightening claims. DJI does not have access to live feeds from drone operator's cameras. It doesn't even have access to footage after it has been shot and stored on the drone's internal memory or cached temporarily on a user's smartphone. The company only has access to photos and video uploaded to its social network, SkyPixel, by users who choose to do so inside the DJI app. It also has access to data on the drone's flight, but only if users opt-in.

DJI can't provide a live eye in the sky

"Should DJI receive a valid legal request from a government agency, we may provide provide user information to that agency, just as other companies do and solely in line with the privacy policy spelled out in our app and on our website," said DJI spokesman Adam Najberg. "That is the case in the U.S., China or anywhere in the world where a valid legal request is made by authorities through proper legal procedures."

Both news outlets pounced on uncertainty in answer given by Zhang Fanxi, a spokesman for the company. The New York Times wrote, "For the moment, Mr. Zhang said, DJI was uncertain what the industry would decide to do with the data. 'This data, exactly how we use it, when we use it and which government departments we give it to' is a continuing discussion, he said."

Video and location data shared with DJI is opt-in

But Najberg, the head of DJI's global communications, said there was no uncertainty around the issue. "We value our customers’ privacy, and a statement to media from a recently hired, junior employee about these issues on Wednesday imprecisely and incorrectly referred to some elements of our privacy policy and how we handle requests from government agencies seeking any information about our users," he said. "There has been no change in either our opt-in privacy policy or in our interactions with authorities anywhere in the world, including China."

Correction: A previous version of this story said Hong Kong protests were shut down over fear of interference by the Chinese government. The protests actually shut down part of Hong Kong in response to fears of Chinese interference, and the story has been updated to reflect this.