Security Strategy, Plan, Budget, Critical Infrastructure Security

DHS announces AI task force, security sprint on China-related threats

DHS wants to get a better handle on threats to the homeland from artificial intelligence and the Chinese government. (Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Department of Homeland Security announced a pair of initiatives that will directly feed into the United States’ strategies for defending critical infrastructure and essential services from cyber attacks, physical attacks, artificial intelligence and other threats.

In a speech this morning on the “State of the Homeland,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said the department will stand up a new task force to guide the implementation of artificial intelligence technologies into departmental operations and scope out how both defenders and malicious actors may use them. Separately, it will also conduct a 90-day sprint to assess defensive capabilities and threats to the nation from the Chinese government across supply chains and critical infrastructure.

He framed both as efforts to position the department long-term to effectively manage the threat landscape of the future and avoid falling prey to “failures of imagination” around emerging threats like the kind that preceded the 9/11 attacks that spurred the creation of DHS.

“It is an especially challenging imperative to fulfill at a time not only of rapid change, but also of acute political divisiveness; when issues of homeland security that traditionally were unifying no longer are so, and when our adversaries continue to exploit innovations designed to bring us closer together, like social media, to push us apart,” Mayorkas said, according to prepared remarks.

The AI task force is designed to help DHS grapple with the myriad offensive and defensive security implications from a rapidly growing and evolving technology, as large language models like ChatGPT have captured the imagination of the public as well as the attention of security researchers, who say the tools can potentially lower the bar of entry for malicious actors in cyberspace and produce bespoke phishing, social engineering and mis-and-disinformation products at scale.

The department also has an interest in using AI for a range of security missions, and the task force will focus on how to “responsibly” use and manage any tools integrated into departmental operations. Among the long-term goals will be to “assess the impact of AI on our ability to secure critical infrastructure” from cyber and physical threats, deploy improved digital forensic capabilities to identify and disrupt child sexual exploitation and abuse, detect and interdict illegal fentanyl shipments, screen cargo coming into the United States at ports of entry and identify incoming goods produced with forced labor.

The announcement of the task force comes two weeks after President Biden gave remarks at a meeting with science advisors expressing concern that artificial intelligence “could be” dangerous while calling for “responsible innovation and appropriate guardrails” around how the federal government and private companies leverage the technology in coming years.

“I recently asked our Homeland Security Advisory Council to study the intersection of AI and homeland security and deliver findings that will help guide our use of it and defense against it,” Mayorkas remarks continue. “The rapid pace of technological change – the pivotal moment we are now in – requires that we also act today.”

According to Mayorkas, the “first critical area” of the upcoming departmental sprint will include an assessment on how to better defend U.S. critical infrastructure from cyber and physical threats coming from Beijing or sponsored groups that are “designed to disrupt or degrade provision of national critical functions, sow discord and panic, and prevent mobilization of U.S. military capabilities.”

The sprint on China-related threats will also focus on five other areas, including disrupting the global illicit fentanyl trade, increasing screenings and vetting procedures to better spot Chinese spies or agents legally entering the country through normal immigration channels, mitigating Chinese ownership and influence over critical components of the U.S. supply chain, cracking down on illegal or unregulated fishing in the Arctic and Indo Pacific and promoting increased information sharing in law enforcement around counterintelligence threats.

Mayorkas’ comments come a day after the department turned into its latest “quadrennial” review of departmental activities (DHS’ last review was published in 2014). That review described the Chinese government as “engaged in a campaign to compromise the security of the United States and use its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to challenge the stable and rules-based international system.”

“Their campaign is as broad as it is unprecedented. The PRC is looking to advance its capabilities by acquiring our intellectual property; taking advantage of our openness to immigration; sponsoring a relentless barrage of cyberattacks that threaten our competitiveness and our critical infrastructure; and continuing to be a source of malign influence, disseminating mis-, dis-, and mal-information into our civic discourse,” the document states.

Derek B. Johnson

Derek is a senior editor and reporter at SC Media, where he has spent the past three years providing award-winning coverage of cybersecurity news across the public and private sectors. Prior to that, he was a senior reporter covering cybersecurity policy at Federal Computer Week. Derek has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Hofstra University in New York and a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University in Virginia.

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