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Event: Defending The Homeland Science and Tech Panel Forum

The acceleration of technology development in the modern era has presented a myriad of new challenges that have transformed fundamental elements of the Department of Homeland Security’s mission.

A panel of experts at GovCon Wire’s Defending the Homeland: Science & Technology Forum said that DHS has embraced its own evolution and prioritized a risk-based approach to adopt the technologies needed to keep pace with the ever-changing threat environment.

“20 years ago, when the department was being stood up, Anthrax and September 11 were fresh on everyone’s mind,” stated Adam Cox, director of the Strategy and Policy Office’s Science and Technology Directorate at DHS.

These types of threats, said Cox, have since been “equalized by cyber.” Now, technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum, unmanned systems and space-related technologies have become imperative to DHS missions, and the organization has made tremendous efforts to deploy these tools to stay on top of novel threats.

“I call it the dance – it’s constantly shifting and it’s constantly moving,” said Garfield Jones, associate chief of strategic technology at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Cox cited cargo container inspection as an area of the DHS’ work that has been impacted by technology advancements. Though the goal of identifying potentially dangerous items being shipped has stayed the same, he said that technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles have contributed “enormous amounts of efficiency” to the operational component of this task. 

“We see an evolution, even though the kind of topic stays the same,” he said.

To maximize the potential of new technologies, Donald Coulter, senior science advisor for cybersecurity at the DHS, said that it is crucial to approach these efforts through both opportunistic and threat-based perspectives.

Providing AI as an example, Jones said the department is trying to use “all aspects” of the technology to maximize mission efficiency, improve threat identification and even create policy. Despite these positive applications, there are “more dubious” uses that have emerged within the current “AI arms race,” he noted. “We are trying to get ahead of it in the sense of issuing guidance on what is good and what is bad, so that folks are aware of when something bad is being used and can protect themselves and their organizations from it,” said Jones.

Coulter emphasized that risk management should begin from the development stage of any technology brought into the federal government. “Even though you are gaining those capabilities, you are also inheriting many of the risks that can be associated with that software and those packages,” he emphasized.

Efforts to secure critical infrastructure in the space domain have shined a new light on the importance of supply chain risk management. According to Jones, the DHS is laser-focused on the development process of space technologies to minimize the risk of built-in defects that could disrupt these technologies once they are in space.

Cox reflected on the overall trend of accelerated technology development and noted the proliferation of mobile phones as a past example. “A year ago I was asking when AI will begin to fall into that category. I think that question is now asked and answered,” he said. “I think the department is starting to recognize that the future is here,” he said.