The Unusual Espionage Act Case Against a Drone Photographer

The United States Department of Justice is quietly prosecuting a novel Espionage Act case involving a drone, a Chinese national, and classified nuclear submarines.

The case is such a rarity that it appears to be the first known prosecution under a World War II–era law that bans photographing vital military installations using aircraft, showing how new technologies are leading to fresh national security and First Amendment issues.

“This is definitely not something that the law has addressed to any significant degree,” Emily Berman, a law professor at the University of Houston who specializes in national security, tells WIRED. “There’s definitely no reported cases.”

On January 5, 2024, Fengyun Shi flew to Virginia while on leave from his graduate studies at the University of Minnesota and rented a Tesla at the airport. His research focused on using AI to detect signs of crop disease in photos. Shi’s subject that week wasn’t plants, however, but allegedly the local shipyards—the only ones manufacturing the latest generation of Navy carrier ships in the country, and nuclear submarines as well.

According to an affidavit filed by FBI special agent Sara Shalowitz in February, a shipyard security officer alerted the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to Shi’s actions. The affidavit alleges that on January 6, Shi was flying a drone in “inclement weather” before it got stuck in a neighbor’s tree. When Shi, who is a Chinese citizen, approached the neighbor for help, he was questioned about his nationality and purpose for being in the area. The unnamed resident took photos of Shi, his license plate, and his ID, and called the police. The affidavit alleges that Shi was “very nervous” when questioned by police and “did not have any real reasons” for flying a drone in bad weather. The police gave Shi the number for the fire department and said he would need to stay on the scene. Instead, he returned the rental car an hour later and left Hampton Roads, Virginia, abandoning the drone.

When the FBI seized the drone and pulled the photos off its memory card, they discovered images that special agent Shalowitz said she recognized as being taken at Newport News Shipyard and BAE Systems, which is a 45-minute drive away. The affidavit states that on the day Shi took the photos, the Newport News Shipyard was “actively manufacturing” aircraft carriers and Virginia class nuclear submarines.

“Naval aircraft carriers have classified and sensitive systems throughout the carriers,” the affidavit states. “The nuclear submarines present on that date also have highly classified and sensitive Navy Nuclear Propulsion Information (‘NNPI’) and those submarines even in the design and construction phase are sensitive and classified.”

The DOJ is charging Shi with six Espionage Act misdemeanors under two statutes: one banning photographing a vital military installation and one banning the use of an aircraft to do so. Each misdemeanor can result in up to a year in prison upon conviction. While he awaits trial, Shi is restricted to living in Virginia under probation. He was forced to surrender his passport. According to court filings, he appears to require a translator.

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