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Despite talk of digital sovereignty, Europe sleepwalks into Chinese dominance on drones

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In her State of the European Union speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered a clear-eyed assessment of the European Union’s position within the global digital economy. Alongside predictions of a European “digital decade” shaped by initiatives such as GaiaX, von der Leyen admitted Europe had lost the race on defining the parameters of personalized data, leaving Europeans “dependent on others”, writes Louis Auge.

Despite that straightforward admission, the question remains whether European leaders are willing to mount a consistent defence of their citizens’ data privacy, even as they accept reliance on American and Chinese firms. When it comes to challenging American social media or e-commerce giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, Europe has no problem seeing itself as the global regulator.

In facing China, however, the European position often seems weaker, with governments only acting to curb the influence of Chinese technology suppliers such as Huawei under intense US pressure. Indeed, in one key area with serious implications for several economic sectors Commission President von der Leyen cited in her speech – unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones – Europe is allowing a single Chinese firm, DJI, to corner the market practically unopposed.

A trend accelerated by the pandemic

Shenzhen Dajiang Innovation Technologies Co. (DJI) is the unquestioned leader of a global drone market predicted to skyrocket to $42.8 billion in 2025; by 2018, DJI already controlled 70% of the market in consumer drones. In Europe, DJI has long been the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) supplier of choice for military and civilian government clients. The French military uses “commercial off-the-shelf DJI drones” in combat zones like the Sahel, while British police forces uses DJI drones to search for missing persons and manage major events.

The pandemic kicked that trend into high gear. In European cities including Nice and Brussels, DJI drones equipped with loudspeakers admonished citizens about confinement measures and monitored social distancing. DJI representatives have even tried to convince European governments to use their drones to take body temperatures or transport COVID-19 test samples.

This rapid expansion in the use of DJI drones runs counter to decisions being taken by key allies. In the United States, the Departments of Defense (the Pentagon) and the Interior have banned the use of DJI’s drones in their operations, driven by concerns over data security first uncovered by the US Navy in 2017. In the time since, multiple analyses have identified similar flaws in DJI systems.

In May, River Loop Security analyzed DJI’s Mimo app and found the software not only failed to adhere to basic data security protocols, but also that it sent sensitive data “to servers behind the Great Firewall of China.” Another cybersecurity firm, Synacktiv, released an analysis of DJI’s mobile DJI GO 4 application in July, finding the company’s Android software “makes use of the similar anti-analysis techniques as malware,” in addition to forcibly installing updates or software while circumventing Google’s safeguards. Synacktiv’s results were confirmed by GRIMM, which concluded DJI or Weibo (whose software development kit transmitted user data to servers in China) had “created an effective targeting system” for attackers – or the Chinese government, as US officials fear – to exploit.

To address the potential threat, the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) has introduced a small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) initiative to procure drones from trusted American and allied manufacturers; France’s Parrot is the only European (and, indeed, non-American) firm currently included. Last week, the Department of the Interior announced it would resume purchasing drones through the DIU sUAS program.

DJI’s security flaws have also sparked concern in Australia. In a consultation paper released last month, the Australian transport and infrastructure department flagged weaknesses in Australia’s defenses against “the malicious use of drones,” finding UAVs could potentially be used to attack the country’s infrastructure or other sensitive targets, or otherwise for purposes of “image and signals gathering” and other types of reconnaissance by hostile actors.

In Europe, on the other hand, neither the European Data Protection Board (EDPB), the German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (BfDI), nor the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL) have taken public action on the potential dangers represented by DJI, even after the company’s products were found forcibly installing software and transferring European user data to Chinese servers without allowing consumers to control or object to those actions. Instead, the use of DJI drones by European military and police forces may appear to offer consumers a tacit endorsement of their security.

Despite an opaque ownership structure, links to Chinese state abound

Suspicions of DJI’s motives are not helped by the opacity of its ownership structure. DJI Company Limited, the holding company for the firm via the Hong Kong-based iFlight Technology Co., is based in the British Virgin Islands, which does not disclose shareholders. DJI’s fundraising rounds nonetheless point to a preponderance of Chinese capital, as well as linkages with China’s most prominent administrative bodies.

In September 2015, for example, New Horizon Capital – cofounded by Wen Yunsong, son of former premier Wen Jiabao – invested $300 million in DJI. That same month, New China Life Insurance, partly owned by China’s State Council, also invested in the firm. In 2018, DJI may have raised up to $1 billion ahead of a supposed public listing, although the identify of those investors remains a mystery.

DJI’s leadership structure also points to links with China’s military establishment. Co-founder Li Zexiang has studied or taught at a number of universities linked to the military, including the Harbin Institute of Technology – one of the 'Seven Sons of National Defence' controlled by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology – as well as the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), directly supervised by the Central Military Commission (CMC). Another executive, Zhu Xiaorui, served as DJI’s head of research and development up until 2013 – and now teaches at the Harbin University of Technology.

These links between DJI’s leadership and China’s military would seem to explain DJI’s prominent role in Beijing’s repression of ethnic minority groups. In December 2017, DJI signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Bureau of Public Security of the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, outfitting Chinese police units in Xinjiang with drones but also developing specialized software to facilitate missions for the “preservation of social stability.” DJI’s complicity in the campaign of “cultural genocide” against the Uighur population of Xinjiang burst into the headlines last year, when a leaked video – shot by a police-controlled DJI drone – documented a mass transfer of interned Uighurs. The company has also signed agreements with authorities in Tibet.

An inevitable crisis?

While DJI has gone to considerable efforts to counteract the findings of Western governments and researchers, even commissioning a study from consultancy FTI that promotes the security of its new “Local Data Mode” while sidestepping existing flaws, the monopolistic control of this emerging sector by a single firm with links to China’s security establishment and direct involvement in systemic human rights abuses could quickly become a problem for regulators in Brussels and the European capitals.

Given how prevalent drones have become across the wider economy, the security of the data they capture and transmit is a question European leaders will have to address – even if they prefer to ignore it.

Business

Antitrust: Commission sends Statement of Objections to Apple on App Store rules for music streaming providers

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The European Commission has informed Apple of its preliminary view that it distorted competition in the music streaming market as it abused its dominant position for the distribution of music streaming apps through its App Store. The Commission takes issue with the mandatory use of Apple's own in-app purchase mechanism imposed on music streaming app developers to distribute their apps via Apple's App Store. The Commission is also concerned that Apple applies certain restrictions on app developers preventing them from informing iPhone and iPad users of alternative, cheaper purchasing possibilities.

The Statement of Objections concerns the application of these rules to all music streaming apps, which compete with Apple's music streaming app “Apple Music” in the European Economic Area (EEA). It follows-up on a complaint by Spotify. The Commission's preliminary view is that Apple's rules distort competition in the market for music streaming services by raising the costs of competing music streaming app developers. This in turn leads to higher prices for consumers for their in-app music subscriptions on iOS devices. In addition, Apple becomes the intermediary for all IAP transactions and takes over the billing relationship, as well as related communications for competitors. If confirmed, this conduct would infringe Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) that prohibits the abuse of a dominant market position. The sending of a Statement of Objections does not prejudge the outcome of an investigation.

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “App stores play a central role in today's digital economy. We can now do our shopping, access news, music or movies via apps instead of visiting websites. Our preliminary finding is that Apple is a gatekeeper to users of iPhones and iPads via the App Store. With Apple Music, Apple also competes with music streaming providers. By setting strict rules on the App store that disadvantage competing music streaming services, Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices and distorts competition. This is done by charging high commission fees on each transaction in the App store for rivals and by forbidding them from informing their customers of alternative subscription options.” A full press release is available online.

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Aviation/airlines

Portugal extends COVID-19 air travel curbs until mid May

Reuters

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Portugal is extending until 16 May flight restrictions that stop non-essential travel from countries including Brazil with high coronavirus incidence rates, and added India to the list due to the rapid rise in infections there.

Travellers from countries where 500 or more cases per 100,000 people have been reported over a 14-day period - which also include South Africa, France and the Netherlands - can only enter Portugal if they have a valid reason, such as for work or healthcare, the government said on Saturday.

Arrivals must then quarantine for 14 days.

The decision on India means Portugal is joining a growing number of countries imposing such restrictions. Neighbouring Spain also on Saturday said passengers arriving there from India must go into quarantine for 10 days to avoid spreading COVID-19, a government bulletin said. Read more

Portugal said people from countries where the incidence rate is 150 or more COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, such as Spain and Germany, can also travel by plane to the country only for essential reasons.

They will have to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure for Portugal. Those without a test will have to take one on arrival and wait for the result at the airport.

The extension of air travel restrictions came on the same day most of Portugal moved to the final phase of a gradual easing of rules imposed in January to tackle what was then the world's worst COVID-19 surge.

As infections dropped sharply, lockdown restrictions started to be eased in mid March. Schools, restaurants and cafes, shopping malls, museums and other non-essential services have since reopened, but under strict rules to reduce contagion risk.

Portugal's 1,200 km land border with Spain also reopened on Saturday after more than three months of restrictions and border checks.

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Competition

Vestager accuses Apple of abusing its role as gatekeeper in music streaming market

Catherine Feore

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The European Commission accuses Apple of abusing their position as a gatekeeper in the music streaming market.

In its ‘statement of objections’ the Commission says music streaming app developers who want to reach Apple device users (iPhone, iPad) have to use Apple store and are charged a 30% commission fee on all subscriptions. They are also obliged to follow Apple’s ‘anti-steering provisions’, which limit developers from informing consumers of alternative purchasing possibilities outside of apps. 

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “Our preliminary finding is that Apple is a gatekeeper to users of iPhones and iPads via the App Store. With Apple Music, Apple also competes with music streaming providers. By setting strict rules on the App store that disadvantage competing music streaming services, Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices and distorts competition. This is done by charging high commission fees on each transaction in the App store for rivals and by forbidding them from informing their customers of alternative subscription options.”

Markus Ferber MEP, European People’s Party group spokesman on economic affairs welcomed the development: “There is always a big risk of abuse for a platform operator like Apple to give preference to its own services on its platform compared to competing services. 

“Apple has been using its App Store for a while to keep its competitors at bay by using dodgy contractual clauses and exorbitant fees. By making use of these anti-competitive practices, gatekeepers such as Apple are preventing true competition from emerging in the first place.”

Long overdue

Ferber also called the Commission’s action long overdue: “It took years for EU competition authorities to get their act together. Apple’s competitors have had to take the hit in the meantime. We urgently have to move from ex-post competition enforcement to ex-ante prevention of market abuse. The Digital Markets Act can be a powerful tool in this regard.”

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