The government will strengthen security rules for drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) to prevent government data from being stolen. The new rules will apply to drones purchased in FY2021 and after. All ministries, government agencies, and incorporated administrative agencies will be required to purchase drones that are equipped with a system that prevents illegal access to flight records and stored images. Furthermore, the drones must be able to block cyberattacks aimed at highjacking them. These requirements would effectively eliminate Chinese drones from the Japanese government’s purchase list.
Under the new rule, government organizations will be required to have their purchase plans pre-screened by the Cabinet Secretariat. This would be necessary if there is a possibility that the drone’s introduction could negatively affect government activities involving public safety and maintenance of order, namely in the areas of (1) security, (2) criminal investigation, (3) maintenance of key infrastructures such as power plants and railroads, and (4) rescue missions. The same drone security rules will apply to subcontractors. Drones purchased in the past should be replaced within the next couple of years. Those used in low-security activities, such as flight training, will be exempt from the new rules.
Drones are called “flying smartphones,” as they are equipped with a communication device, camera, and global positioning system (GPS)—the same as what smartphones carry. While in flight, drones are connected to outside networks, and without strong security measures, they could be easily hacked and the data stolen for illegal purposes. If information on key infrastructures were to be stolen, it might end up in the hands of terrorists or criminal organizations.
In 2018, the government implemented rules that effectively banned the use of products and services provided by the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE in central government organizations. At the time, the government didn’t specify the names of the companies or the country so as not to cause diplomatic problems. Instead, it allowed the agencies to limit introduction of products that were viewed as possible security threats. The government took the same approach this time.
China enjoys close to an 80% share of the global drone-market, which includes recreational drones purchased by private citizens. In Aug. 2017, Chinese drones were banned in the U.S. Army. In 2019, U.S. government organizations were prohibited from using the Chinese drones. In August this year, the U.S. Department of Defense designated five U.S. manufacturers to replace China in the drone market.
The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) currently possesses about 30 drones, the majority of which are made in China. However, the JCG has never used the Chinese drones in security-related and investigative missions. The Ministry of Defense, which utilizes approximately 800 Chinese drones, also said that it takes security concerns into account.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has included 1.6 billion yen in FY2109 budget to support domestic manufacturers that develop basic technology for safe and secure drones. “We cannot vouch for the safety of Chinese drones,” says a METI official who works at the office of next-generation air mobility. METI aims to domestically produce multiple-use, small-scale drones by the end of this fiscal year and procure them as early as next fiscal year.