Homeland Security Thinks DJI Is Using Its Drones to Spy on America

Screenshot: FX

Various members of the Trump administration, including the president himself, are famous for buying into crazy conspiracy theories. Now, the Los Angeles office of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has come up with a whopper of its own. These guys think China is spying on unsuspecting Americans with DJI drones.

The New York Times just reported on an August memo from Homeland Security Investigations claiming that DJI is likely collecting sensitive data from its commercial drones in the United States and sharing it with the Chinese government. Largely citing “a reliable source within the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry,” the memo specifically suggests that DJI is targeting law enforcement, military, and infrastructure builders in such a way that the intelligence collected would enable China to launch cyber or even physical attacks more easily. And on top of that, the Homeland Security investigators also claim that DJI is using data gathered by drones to game markets, since they potentially gather data about farms, shipping facilities, and so forth. It all sounds pretty bonkers to be honest.

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DJI flatly denied these claims and told the Times that the memo is “based on clearly false and misleading claims.” The company wasn’t reserved in its objection, either. “The allegations in the bulletin are so profoundly wrong as a factual matter that ICE should consider withdrawing it, or at least correcting its unsupportable assertions,” DJI told the paper.

But if you believe the conspiracy, you probably think that this is exactly what a Chinese government puppet company would say. Of course DJI would claim that American investigators are “profoundly wrong,” you might say. The truth could start World War III, you may think.

Then again, the ICE memo makes some pretty outlandish claims. While DJI is perhaps most famous for its consumer drones, the company amped up its commercial drone business after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) legalized the use of commercial drones in 2014. However, ICE and the Homeland Security investigators now claim that DJI is going after specific markets in order to sabotage and potentially mount an attack on the US. From the memo:

DJI is particularly interested in exploiting data from two critical infrastructure sectors: U.S. railroads and utilities. … DJI is inviting key customers to attend training sessions and conferences to further encourage U.S. companies to purchase and use DJI systems

Is it a conspiracy? Or is it simple marketing? You decide.

Here’s another whopper. Because random American business are buying DJI drones and using them for business purposes, the Homeland Security investigators suggest that the company is sending the data collected by these drones to the Chinese government and using them for China’s own commercial purposes. From the memo:

Furthermore, the Chinese government is likely using information acquired from DJI systems as a way to target assets they are planning to purchase. For instance, a large family-owned wine producer in California purchased DJI UAS to survey its vineyards and monitor grape production. Soon afterwards, Chinese companies began purchasing vineyards in the same area. According to the , it appeared the companies were able to use DJI data to their own benefit and profit.

Conspiracy? Or coincidence? You be the judge.

And the memo ends with what is perhaps the most Trumpian conclusion of them all. It involves the terrorists. From the memo:

SIP Los Angeles assesses with high confidence the critical infrastructure and law enforcement entities using DJI systems are collecting sensitive intelligence that the Chinese government could use to conduct physical or cyber attacks against the United States and its population. Alternatively, China could provide DJI information to terrorist organizations, hostile non-state entities, or state-sponsored groups to coordinate attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure.

Any rational person will admit that the data gathered from drones could be shared with government organizations or others. Sure, those organizations could decide to do bad things with this information, and the outcome could affect American citizens in a negative way. But you could say the same thing about cell phone data or fitness tracker data or internet browsing data. As one Gizmodo editor suggested, the difference between reality and the conspiracy-minded conclusions this memo jumps to is like the difference between saying “consumer cell phones have security vulnerabilities” and “my iPhone is listening to me and serving me Adidas ads.” The latter is possible, but there doesn’t appear to be any proof.

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In this case, DJI insists that its customers “have total control over whether to upload data, such as flight plans and video, to the company’s servers,” according to The New York Times. It’s worth pointing out that DJI did face some security vulnerabilities that potentially allowed third parties to intercept some data. This led to the US Army to stop using its drones and for DJI to release a new “local data mode” that prevented data from being transmitted. It’s still a hell of a leap to suggest that DJI itself is surreptitiously intercepting data and sharing it with the Chinese government, possibly for military purposes. The idea simply sounds like a conspiracy theory, based on the information in the ICE memo.

The fact that one office of Homeland Security Investigations released a memo a few months ago doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is going to happen. There’s no indication that customs officials will halt the import of DJI drones or that the FBI will launch an investigation into the matter. Such outcomes seem unlikely since so much time has passed since the memo was first distributed. Then again, conspiracy theorists would have you believe that this was the plan all along. Nobody knows about the real investigation because the Chinese government’s keeping it secret by manipulating the microchips in our Chinese-made smartphones. That’s the real conspiracy, man. The microchips…

[New York Times]

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Tensorflow Tutorial Uses Python

Around the Hackaday secret bunker, we’ve been talking quite a bit about machine learning and neural networks. There’s been a lot of renewed interest in the topic recently because of the success of TensorFlow. If you are adept at Python and remember your high school algebra, you might enjoy [Oliver Holloway’s] tutorial on getting started with Tensorflow in Python.

[Oliver] gives links on how to do the setup with notes on Python versions. Then he shows some basic setup operations. From there, he has the software “learn” how to classify random points that either fall into a circle or don’t. Granted, this is easy enough to do with traditional programming, so it isn’t a great practical example, but it is illustrative for learning purposes.

Given that it is easy to algorithmically decide which points are in the circle and which are not, it is simple to develop training data. It is also easy to look at the result and see how close it is to the actual circle. You’ll see that it takes a lot of slow learning before the result space looks like a circle and not a triangle or some other odd shape.

When we discuss neural networks, this is always the hitch. In a broad sense, there is no problem solvable with a neural network that isn’t solvable using traditional techniques. But for hard problems, it can be difficult to figure out how to apply those traditional techniques. For example, speech recognition without machine learning is possible, but using these techniques results in better speech recognition by simply training. The upside is that the neural network is effective and lower effort than trying to develop heuristics manually, while the downside is that you aren’t really in control of what the code is doing.

The question that always comes up is that of how similar to our brains are the neural networks. Most of us would say not very much, and now there is some evidence that your brain is using a mechanism closer to that of a quantum computer. One thing seems clear, though. If you build a computer that thinks like a human, it will probably have all the same flaws that human thinkers have.This  may cause a problem, despite making good Star Trek episodes.

We’ve published our own getting started guide, but you never know which one will give you that “Aha!” moment. If you want the quickest possible introduction, be prepared to spend ten minutes.

Filed under: Software Hacks

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Medieval city plan generator

The Medieval city generator does just that, with the right balance of abstraction and detail to give your imagination space to put it to good use. (previously)

This application generates a random medieval city layout of a requested size. The generation method is rather arbitrary, the goal is to produce a nice looking map, not an accurate model of a city. Maybe in the future I’ll use its code as a basis for some game or maybe not.

Click one of the buttons to create a new city map of a desired size. Hover the mouse pointer over a building to see the type of the ward it belongs to. Press and hold SPACE to see all ward labels.

Toy Town is a 3d-visualizer for this generator. One day it may become a separate native application or a part of the generator, or both.

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ESP8266 Home Monitor Is Stylishly Simplistic

It’s often said that “Less is More”, and we think that the chic ESP8266 environmental monitor posted by Thingiverse user [bkpsu] definitely fits the bill. Dubbed “Kube”, the device is a 3D printed white cube with an OLED display in the center, which [bkpsu] says was designed specifically for the approval of his wife. Weirdly, she didn’t like the look of bare PCBs on the wall.

Multiple Kubes allow for whole-house monitoring.

Inside, things are a little more complex. The Kube uses the NodeMCU development board, and a custom breakout that [bkpsu] designed to interface with the display and sensors. For temperature and humidity monitoring, the Kube is using the ever-popular DHT22, and [bkpsu] mentions that he has future plans for things like motion sensors and direct control of RGB LED strips. All the data collected by the Kube is piped into openHAB via MQTT.

On the very detailed Thingiverse page, [bkpsu] gives background information on his design goals for the project, tips for printing out a high-quality case, a parts list with Amazon links, and pinout information for getting it all wired up. The PCB is even available on OSH Park for those who want a Kube of their own.

Even with all the stick home monitoring and automation products on the market today, many hackers simply can’t bring themselves to buying a turn-key commercial product. But we think with the results hackers have been getting rolling their own solutions, they just might be on to something.

Filed under: green hacks, hardware, home hacks

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Fluid Simulations in the Kitchen Sink

In an age of ultra-powerful GPUs and cheap processors, computational techniques which were once only available to those with a government-sized R&D budgets are now available to the everyday hacker. An example of industry buzzword turned desktop software is the field of “computational fluid dynamics”, which put simply allow modeling how gasses or liquids will behave when moving through a cavity under specific conditions. Extensive utilization of these fluid simulations are often cited as one of breakthrough techniques which allowed SpaceX to develop their engine technology so rapidly when compared to Apollo and Shuttle era methods.

But just because anyone with a decent computer has access to the technology used for developing rocket engines doesn’t mean they have to use it. What if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way? Or what if, let’s me honest, you just can’t figure out how to use software like Autodesk CFD and OpenFOAM? That’s exactly where [Desi Quintans] found himself when developing GUST, his cooling duct for i3-type 3D printers.

[Desi] tried to get the big name fluid simulation projects working with his prototype designs for an improved cooling duct, but had no end of trouble. Either the learning curve was too steep, or the simulation wasn’t accurate enough to give him any useful data. But remembering that air is itself a fluid, [Desi] took his simulation from the computer to the sink in order to better visualize what his cooling duct was doing to the airflow.

[Desi] printed up a box with a hole in the bottom that would connect up to his nozzles under test. As the volume of water in the box would be a constant between tests, he reasoned that this would allow him to evaluate the different nozzles at the same pressure. Sure enough, he found that the original nozzle design he was using caused chaotic water flow, which backed up what he was seeing in his experiments when mounted onto the printer.

After several iterations he was able to tame the flow of water by using internal baffles and fins, which when tested in water created something of a laminar flow effect. When he tried this version on the printer, he saw a clear improvement in part cooling, verifying that the behavior of the air and water was close enough for his purposes.

We’ve seen other projects that successfully used fluid simulations in their design before, but the quick and dirty test procedure [Desi] came up with certainly has its charms.

Filed under: 3d Printer hacks, hardware

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Bolt Together 2 X 72 Belt Grinder

Below I have included some drawings and models that should hopefully help you with the dimensions and hole layouts. I included the drawings as pdf’s and the .step file for the entire assembly so you can see how it all fits together. If you do not have a 3D modeling software I have also included a 3D pdf that will anyone with adobe acrobat (its free) to be able to view the assembly as well.

Note: While making this I made some changes and these drawings and models are not 100% the same as what I show being made. I will address the changes in each step as they differ from the drawings.

Material List:

2in x 2in square tubing in the following lengths:

One 5in long tube

Two 10in long tubes

One 11in long tube

1.5in x 1.5in square tubing in the following lengths:

One 7in long tube

One 17in long tube

One 12in long tube

Two pieces 2in x 6.5in x .25in (this can be thinner but it is nice if it is thicker because it will be threaded)

Two pieces 4in x 4in x .125 (this can be thicker if you want but not any thinner)

Four 2in long pieces of 2in angle iron

One piece at least 2.5in x 8in x .25in for the tool rest

One piece 2in x 2in x .25in (I made mine more around 2in x 4in x .25in which you will see later)

One piece 1.5in x 1.1in x .375in for one half of the hinge

One piece 2in x 2in x .375in for the other half of the hinge

Parts list:

Lots of bolts (each step will show the bolts you need, most are 3/8in bolts but they don’t have to be)

Lots of lock nuts (these are important as this vibrates a lot and you don’t want it coming apart)

Two adjustable position handles (I used these 3/8 x 1 1/4 ones)

Flat platen tool (I bought this one but the second link I provided has the plans for one if you can make it)

Guide, tracking, and drive wheels (I bought mine form here but the third link shows how you can make your own)

A gas spring (I used a 7in 100N/22lb spring from amazon but it is no longer available)

A handle (I turned a 2 x 2 piece of wood into a handle but you could buy whatever you want)

A motor (This completely depends on what you have or the power you want, I have a 1hp motor with a vfd to provide variable speed control)

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Someone Finally Did It With A 555

Someone Finally Did It With A 555

[Jarunzel] needed a device that would automatically click the left button on a mouse at a pre-set interval. For regular Hackaday readers, this is an easy challenge. You could do it with an ATtiny85 using the VUSB library, a few resistors and diodes, and a bit of code that emulates a USB device that constantly sends mouse clicks over USB every few seconds. You could also do it with a Raspberry Pi Zero, using the USB gadget protocol. Now, this mouse-clicking gadget would be connected to the Internet (!), programmable with Node or whatever the kids are using these days, and would have some major blog cred. If you’re feeling adventurous, this mouse clicker gadget could be built with an STM32, Cypress PSoC, or whatever microcontroller you have in your magical bag of hacker tricks.

Then again, you could also do it with a 555 timer.

The reason [Jarunzel] couldn’t use any of the fancy hackertools for this build is because the system wouldn’t accept two mouse devices. No matter, because Maplin has a neat kit with a 555 timer and a relay. The relay is wired up across the microswitch in the mouse, and setting the values correctly makes the mouse click about once per second, with a click duration of about 100ms. Good enough.

With the kit built, wired into the mouse, a small app built to test the device, and a nice project box constructed, [Jarunzel] had exactly what he needed. There’s even a video of this mouse clicker in action. You can check out that riveting footage below.

VIDEO

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