Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

By Chris Philips
Managing Editor 



July 1, 2019

Maritime photography has seen a revolution with the advent of drone technology. Since the dawn of the film camera, in order to get a good photo of a vessel underway, one had to be on an adjacent vessel underway. Aerial shots were more difficult and expensive, as one needed a light aircraft or helicopter and a pilot.

Those days are mostly gone, now that a high quality commercial camera drone can be had for less than $1,500, and most can be linked to, and even controlled by, a smart phone.

The most popular versions are made in Shenzhen, which is in China’s version of Silicon Valley.

Recently these Chinese-made drones have been coming under the scrutiny of the US Department of Homeland Security. According to technology expert and radio personality Kim Komando, the government has noticed concerning patterns of data use coming from Chinese-made drones. Komando says a recent alert from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency identified Chinese drone components as part of a potentially dangerous data collection effort.

The government says many of these drones have parts that can “share information on a server” based in China.

“Under Chinese law,” Komando notes, “all companies and entities within the People’s Republic of China must be cooperative with intelligence agencies and their activities.”

The Shenzhen-based company producing 80 percent of the drones sold in the US was singled out by US intelligence in 2017 for specifically collecting data from drones used by government and law enforcement officials.

Not just drones. Late last year, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported that data center equipment run by Amazon Web Services and Apple may have been subject to surveillance from the Chinese government via a tiny microchip inserted during the equipment manufacturing process. Apple and Amazon disputed the claims in the report, and no evidence was ever found to back up the claims, but the tech community agreed that the idea had merit and that Chinese government agencies have been known to intercept freight and carefully modify the hardware before resealing it and sending it on its way.

In 2015, a Virginia-based team of security researchers found that more than 700 million Android smartphones, some of which were used in the US, included hidden software that enabled surveillance by tracking user’s movements and communications. reports that the malicious software was so well hidden that it was nearly impossible to detect, and it remains unclear whether it was designed for espionage or simply to collect bulk data for commercial purposes.

According to the Journal of Commerce, China dominates the US electronics import sector, accounting for more than 60 percent of electronics imports into the United States. How much control does China have over these electronics? Should we be worried?

The Jones Act comes under fire on a regular basis, and this column defends it as a necessary precaution against control by foreign entities. Thanks to the Jones Act, the US doesn’t have to rely on foreign ships with foreign crews to transport our soldiers and materiel to support a war effort on a distant shore. But while the steel to build the ships comes from the US, as do the men and women sailing them, where do the electronics come from? Who supplies the chips in complicated engine management systems? Whose chips power the GPS, AIS and ECDIS? Are these systems safe from remote observers? Can they be tracked? Can they be remotely controlled or deactivated?

From the recent crackdown on the people of Hong Kong to aggression in the South China Sea, China is emphasizing its power over its citizens and its neighbors. It’s nice to have inexpensive electronics providing high-quality aerial photos of a new vessel during sea trials, a new refinery or a power station, but not if that same drone is sending the photos to a foreign spy agency.

Chris can be reached at


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