The acute threats and long-term challenges posed by China and artificial intelligence have sparked a new threat-assessment “sprint” on the PRC and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security’s first Artificial Intelligence Task Force, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Friday in the State of Homeland Security address at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mayorkas recognized former Secretary Michael Chertoff among the attendees before noting that the department is “confronting a dramatically changed environment compared to the one we faced in March 2003.”
Given the promises and potential pitfalls of artificial intelligence as it “grips our imaginations and accelerates into our lives in uncharted and basically unmanaged fashion,” Mayorkas said he posed a critical security analysis question to a generative AI model: “In one sentence, describe how the homeland security threat environment has evolved over the past 20 years.”
“The homeland security threat environment has evolved from a primarily focused counterterrorism posture to a complex and diverse landscape of challenges that include cyberattacks, domestic extremism, and the COVID-19 pandemic, among others,” the AI responded in seconds, Mayorkas said.
“The exponential growth of internet technology and the change it has driven has been extraordinary,” the secretary said. “As we reflect on the state of our homeland security today, that explosive growth compels the question: what will this growth mean for our safety and security over the next 20 years?”
That rapidly evolving technology is part of the “decisive decade,” as termed by President Biden, for the world and homeland security, Mayorkas said, including “growing political and economic instability, widening wealth inequality, a rapidly changing climate, increasingly aggressive nation states, emerging infectious diseases, and other forces” that are “transforming the global landscape, challenging and sometimes rendering moot a nation’s borders, and bringing national and international threats to any community’s doorstep.”
Mayorkas echoed the assessment of other security leaders as he said that “lone offenders and small cells of individuals motivated by a wide range of grievances and violent extremist ideologies – from white supremacy and anti-Semitism to anti-government attitudes – pose the most persistent and lethal terrorism-related threat in the United States.”
“Globally, the impacts of disasters coupled with the rise of authoritarianism, corruption, conflict, violence, and persecution have resulted in a historic displacement and migration of people around the world and a consequent strain on immigration systems ill-equipped to address it,” he said. “…Criminal organizations have capitalized on this surge. The reach and growing ruthlessness of smuggling organizations have changed how people migrate. Drug trafficking organizations have grown in sophistication and power, creating new means of manufacturing and selling death and destruction.”
On the cybersecurity front, malicious actors “are capable of disrupting gasoline supplies across an entire region of the country, preventing hospitals from delivering critical care, and causing disruption in some of the school systems around our country.”
“Nation states like the People’s Republic of China and Russia upend our rules-based international order and threaten our security at home, whether through cyberattacks, abuse of our trade and travel systems, or through disinformation campaigns that seek to undermine our democratic institutions,” Mayorkas continued. “Our homeland security has converged with our broader national security.”
To evolve with the threats and meet modern-day challenges, DHS has “built new institutions” including the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships, “modernized our approach and processes, developed new capabilities, and are harnessing innovation as we deliver critical services that are more in demand than ever before.” The secretary also cited building threat prevention capabilities “where previously they did not exist, responding to the reality that major metropolitan areas are no longer our adversaries’ only targets,” developing and deploying for the first time “department-wide incident management teams to lead all-of-government responses to emergent challenges,” building broad partnerships needed to fight cartels and human trafficking, and tackling cyber and physical threats to critical infrastructure.
This week’s release of the third Quadrennial Homeland Security Review — the last one was issued in 2014 — included crimes of exploitation such as human trafficking “as a dedicated homeland security mission alongside our work countering terrorism, securing our borders, administering our immigration system, securing cyberspace and critical infrastructure, and building resilience and responding to disasters,” Mayorkas said. “This reflects the overriding importance of supporting victims and stopping the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes.”
Emphasizing threats of the future, the secretary focused on China’s “especially grave threat to the homeland, one that indeed does touch all of our department’s missions,” and the “many ways in which artificial intelligence will drastically alter the threat landscape and augment the arsenal of tools we possess to succeed in the face of these threats.”
“Beijing has the capability and the intent to undermine our interests at home and abroad and is leveraging every instrument of its national power to do so, from its increasingly aggressive presence in the South China Sea to the overseas police stations used to harass and intimidate dissenters,” Mayorkas said. “A PRC invasion of Taiwan would have profound reverberations in the homeland, putting our civilian critical infrastructure at risk of a disruptive cyberattack. We must ensure we are poised to guard against this threat today and into the future.”
A 90-day “sprint” at DHS will “assess how the threats posed by the PRC will evolve and how we can be best positioned to guard against future manifestations of this threat,” particularly critical infrastructure threats and how to better intercept “illicit travelers from the PRC who exploit our lawful immigration and travel systems to collect intelligence, steal intellectual property, and harass dissidents, while still we must facilitate lawful travel.”
“Informed by engagements with subject matter experts and our stakeholders, we will take immediate action to drive down risk, lay the foundation for ongoing public-private collaboration, and work with Congress to ensure we continue to invest in these vital capabilities,” the secretary added.
Mayorkas announced that sprint in the same week as the Justice Department announced the arrest of two New York City residents who allegedly operated an illegal police station of the Chinese government in Manhattan’s Chinatown, announced charges against eight Chinese government officials who allegedly directed an employee of a U.S. telecommunications company to remove Chinese dissidents from the company’s platform, and charged 34 officers of China’s National Police with perpetrating a transnational repression scheme targeting U.S. residents.
The secretary vowed that DHS “will lead in the responsible use of AI to secure the homeland and in defending against the malicious use of this transformational technology,” ensuring that “our use of AI is rigorously tested to avoid bias and disparate impact, and is clearly explainable to the people we serve.”
The Homeland Security Advisory Council is currently studying the intersection of AI and homeland security, and Mayorkas said he expects those findings “will help guide our use of it and defense against it.”
In addition, the secretary announced the creation of the department’s first Artificial Intelligence Task Force to “drive specific applications of AI to advance our critical homeland security missions” including supply chain security and detecting fentanyl smuggling.
“Countering the multi-faceted threat posed by the PRC, learning from major cyber incidents, and harnessing the power of AI to advance our security will draw on the entirety of the capabilities and expertise the 260,000 personnel of DHS bring to bear every single day,” Mayorkas said. “It will require continued investment in our operational cohesion, our ability to work together in ways our founders never imagined.”
“We must never allow ourselves to be susceptible to ‘failures of imagination,’ which, as the 9/11 Commission concluded nearly 20 years ago, held us back from connecting the dots and preparing for the destruction that was being planned on that tragic day. We must instead look to the future and imagine the otherwise unimaginable, to ensure that whatever threats we face, our department – our country – will be positioned to meet the moment,” he continued. “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.”
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