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Department of Homeland Security bets on AI to help handle China

Secretary worries about critical infrastructure being held to ransom

In an address at the Council on Foreign Relations on Friday, secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced the department has created a task force to look for AI tools that can detect and defend against threats to national security – including those posed by China.

"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," warned Mayorkas.

"A PRC invasion of Taiwan would have profound reverberations in the homeland, putting our civilian critical infrastructure at risk of a disruptive cyberattack," he added.

The secretary announced his department will therefore create an Artificial Intelligence Task Force, intended to drive AI applications that could be useful for homeland security missions.

Among the task force's first assignments is to utilize AI to enhance supply chains and broaden the trade environment. AI will be used to screen cargo, identify goods made through forced labor – presumably inclusive of China’s forced labor camps in Xinjiang – and manage risk.

AI will also be leveraged to detect fentanyl shipments and slow the influx of the dangerous drug into the United States.

"As we do this, we will ensure that our use of AI is rigorously tested to avoid bias and disparate impact, and is clearly explainable to the people we serve," said the secretary, to which The Register wishes the department good luck.

To illustrate the urgency of adopting AI, Mayorkas called on his audience to imagine extreme dystopian scenarios in order to avoid falling victim to "failures of imagination" – like the US did prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

According to the secretary, the world could be on the precipice of becoming one "where criminals 3D print weapons or modify consumer technologies like drones to evade law enforcement," or "where cyber criminals are emboldened to the point of holding for ransom the critical services of an entire city."

The speech coincided with the release of the Third Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR) – a document that assesses the evolution of homeland security threats since the department was founded twenty years ago. The last two QHSRs were released in 2010 and 2014.

This iteration of the review adds combatting human trafficking and other crimes of exploitation to the department's five existing missions: counter terrorism and prevent threats; secure and manage borders; administer the immigration system; secure cyberspace and critical infrastructure; and build resilient national response to incidents.

Mayorkas stated that the misuse of new technologies – alongside other forces – has fueled an alarming increase in crimes of exploitation. ®

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