U.S. homeland security officials are launching what they describe as two urgent initiatives to combat growing threats from China and expanding dangers from ever more capable, and potentially malicious, artificial intelligence.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced Friday that his department was starting a “90-day sprint” to confront more frequent and intense efforts by China to hurt the United States, while separately establishing an artificial intelligence task force.
"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," Mayorkas warned, addressing the threat from China during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
The 90-day sprint will “assess how the threats posed by the PRC [People's Republic of China] will evolve and how we can be best positioned to guard against future manifestations of this threat,” he said.
“One critical area we will assess, for example, involves the defense of our critical infrastructure against PRC or PRC-sponsored attacks designed to disrupt or degrade provision of national critical functions, sow discord and panic, and prevent mobilization of U.S. military capabilities,” Mayorkas added.
Other areas of focus for the sprint will include addressing ways to stop Chinese government exploitation of U.S. immigration and travel systems to spy on the U.S. government and private entities and to silence critics, and looking at ways to disrupt the global fentanyl supply chain.
Mayorkas also said the magnitude of the threat from artificial intelligence, appearing in a growing number of tools from major tech companies, was no less critical.
"We must address 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," he said.
Mayorkas promised that the Department of Homeland Security “will lead in the responsible use of AI to secure the homeland and in defending against the malicious use of this transformational technology."
The new task force is set to seek ways to use AI to protect U.S. supply chains and critical infrastructure, counter the flow of fentanyl, and help find and rescue victims of online child sexual exploitation.
The unveiling of the two initiatives came days after lawmakers grilled Mayorkas about what some described as a lackluster and derelict effort under his leadership to secure the U.S. border with Mexico.
“You have not secured our borders, Mr. Secretary, and I believe you’ve done so intentionally,” the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican Mark Green, told Mayorkas on Wednesday.
Another lawmaker, Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, went as far as to accuse Mayorkas of lying, though her words were quickly removed from the record.
Mayorkas on Friday said it might be possible to use AI to help with border security, though how exactly it could be deployed for the task was not yet clear.
“We're at a nascent stage of really deploying AI,” he said. “I think we're now at the dawn of a new age.”
But Mayorkas cautioned that technologies like AI would do little to slow the number of migrants willing to embark on dangerous journeys to reach U.S. soil.
“Desperation is the greatest catalyst for the migration we are seeing," he said.
The announcement of Homeland Security’s 90-day sprint to confront growing threats from Beijing followed a warning earlier this week from the FBI about the willingness of China to target dissidents and critics in the U.S.
and the arrests of two New York City residents for their involvement in a secret Chinese police station.
China has denied any wrongdoing.
“The Chinese government strictly abides by international law, and fully respects the law enforcement sovereignty of other countries,” Liu Pengyu, the spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA in an email earlier this week, accusing the U.S. of seeking “to smear China’s image.”
Top U.S. officials have said they are opening two investigations daily into Chinese economic espionage in the U.S.
“The Chinese government has stolen more of American's personal and corporate data than that of every nation, big or small combined,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told an audience late last year.
More recently, Wray warned of Chinese’ advances in AI, saying he was “deeply concerned.”
Mayorkas voiced a similar sentiment, pointing to China’s use of investments and technology to establish footholds around the world.
“We are deeply concerned about PRC-owned and -operated infrastructure, elements of infrastructure, and what that control can mean, given that the operator and owner has adverse interests,” Mayorkas said Friday.
“Whether it's investment in our ports, whether it is investment in partner nations, telecommunications channels and the like, it's a myriad of threats,” he said.