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Conn. legislators look to ban Chinese-made drones used by fire, police departments

Bill, based on concerns about hacking, faces opposition as Chinese-made drones are generally cheaper


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By Christopher Keating
Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — Concerned about potential hacking, a key legislative committee voted Monday for a bill prohibiting Connecticut towns and state agencies from purchasing Chinese and Russian-made drones in the future.

The judiciary committee split largely along party lines with Democrats in favor of the provision and Republicans against it.

As the bill has been rewritten recently and is still undergoing revisions, the complete phaseout would apply to the state police by October 2026 and municipalities by October 2027. First responders like police departments statewide have already spent an estimated $1 million to $2 million on drones, but they will eventually be replaced because the average lifespan is three to five years, officials said.

The problem, lawmakers said, is that the Chinese-made drones are generally cheaper, and Connecticut municipalities have been buying them because of the lower cost.

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The issue came to light when the FBI and a federal entity known as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released warnings that the drones might be a security risk because they could collect video and photographs of water and sewer plants, emergency communications systems, and key infrastructure.

Senate majority leader Bob Duff, a Norwalk Democrat, has become a leader on the issue because he serves on the cybersecurity task force of the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the recent Congress where lawmakers remained deadlocked on most issues, legislators passed a law last year that bans the use of foreign drones for the military and the U.S. government.

“Most people are unaware of the risk that these foreign-made drones present in our communities,” Duff told The Courant in an interview Monday. “They don’t know. When people get drones, they go for the lowest price, and the lowest price is the Chinese drones — and that’s on purpose. But there is an inherent danger.”

Besides the federal ban, Connecticut would be following the lead of states like Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi that have banned the devices.

Duff and Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney of New Haven sent a letter recently to mayors and first selectmen to spread the word about the security risks regarding critical infrastructure.

“The Chinese drones issue is a very critical issue that this legislature needs to address,” said Rep. Doug Dubitsky, a conservative Republican who voted against the bill. “Having drones used by emergency responders that send information and video and critical information to our potential adversaries is something that we really need to address.”

Sen. John Kissel, the ranking Senate Republican on the judiciary committee, voted against the bill Monday and previously had voted against it on the general law committee.

The drone prohibitions “will have a huge financial impact on our municipalities,” Kissel said. “It will also imperil law enforcement’s ability to use these going forward for emergency situations, lost children, and the like. This bill needs an awful lot of work.”

Rep. Melissa Osborne, a Simsbury Democrat, voted for the bill Monday with many of her fellow Democrats.

“I share the concerns about the potential municipal cost and the fact that American drones just aren’t there yet,” Osborne told her colleagues. “That’s because we haven’t invested in them. For me, the overarching concern is that a potential bad actor in the international sphere seems to think that it’s important that they have the right to obtain the data from these drones. I may not be able to understand why that’s important, but if they think it’s important and they want it, I pretty much don’t want them to have it. I came down on the side of protecting our international and domestic security.”

A crucial point in the bill is that cities and towns could obtain a waiver that would allow the governor’s budget office, known as the state Office of Policy and Management, to drop the funding and purchase provisions under certain circumstances. The local police or fire chief would need to explain why the municipality needed to keep using the drone that had been banned.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns, which represents towns with fewer than 35,000 residents, said the bill represents a compromise.

“Clearly, protecting critical infrastructure from cyber threats is vital to the public health and safety of our communities,” Gara said. “At the same time, first responders have relied on drones as an effective tool in performing search and rescue operations, responding to fires, accidents, and other incidents. Many towns have invested thousands of dollars to purchase drones that have helped save lives.”

Gara added, “As amended, the bill strikes a good balance by phasing out the use of certain drones while providing a waiver process so that municipalities may continue to use drones under certain circumstances.”

The drone provision is part of a broader bill on consumer protections that is known as Senate Bill 3.

General law committee

Previously, lawmakers debated the same bill in the general law committee, where Kissel and Osborne are both members.

State Rep. Rutigliano, a Trumbull Republican, said he was concerned about firefighters and police who are already using drones that were made in China.

“Nobody wants us to use Chinese-made drones,” Rutigliano said. “Hopefully, American technology will catch up. … We don’t really make these in the United States yet.”

Democrats say that the data collected by first responders goes back to the Chinese company that made the drone.

Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat, told the general law committee that she was an interpreter in Chinese Mandarin when she served in the military. She noted that the bill does not take effect immediately because the new provisions could not be imposed overnight.

“I would love to see us never purchase anything else made in China,” Osten said. “Quite frankly, we should not be purchasing anything from the Chinese government. … We have to address that our fire departments and police departments bought technology that we encouraged them to buy for public safety reasons. We can’t tell them tomorrow that they can’t use them anymore.”

©2024 Hartford Courant.
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