Kenneth Wainstein, the Biden administration’s nominee to become undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), fielded questions on several tech-related issues from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee at a Jan. 12 committee hearing to consider his nomination.
Among those lines of inquiry were questions about how Weinstein’s office at DHS would handle the employment of facial recognition technologies, and work with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) on ransomware and other security issues.
President Biden nominated Wainstein in November 2021 to become the next DHS I&A director. The I&A position is classified as part of the intelligence community and is charged with delivering intelligence information used by DHS and distributed by the agency to its state, local, Tribal, and private sector partners.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said he supports the nomination of Wainstein, and called his position the “critical juncture” of the intelligence community and DHS. He applauded Wainstein’s extensive background with the Justice Department and the FBI, but said the appointment comes “at a pivotal moment” in which the I&A position at DHS “has been a bit unfocused.”
“The DHS of today faces an increasingly complex threat environment” from cybersecurity and other threats emanating from Russia and China, as well as threats to U.S. elections integrity, Wainstein said. He said the DHS I&A operation are “critical” to meeting those threats.
He particularly singled out threats to the U.S. from the Chinese government, saying “we are seeing now an assault across the board” from China for world dominance in the economic, political, and industrial spheres, and pledged to “keep sounding the alarm” on those threats including Chinese theft of intellectual property.
Wainstein told Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., that if confirmed, the DHS I&A operation’s cyber mission center would work closely with CISA to track ransomware threats against U.S. targets, particularly those in the healthcare sector.
The nominee said he has already held talks with CISA leadership about integrating DHS I&A activities to support CISA and “channel targeted intelligence” to the agency on specific ransomware threats and techniques. “I can commit … to focusing like a laser on that issue,” he pledged, adding he will make sure that I&A “surges resources” if necessary to fight the ransomware problem.
Responding to a query from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., about how DHS I&A intended to view the use of facial recognition technologies, Wainstein pledged to keep committee members informed going forward.
He indicated his previous stints in Federal government service predated the use of the technology, but continued, “I’ve heard about the concerns about biases in the technology and general concerns whenever you have a powerful new technology to use for intelligence purposes.”
“It needs to be very carefully vetted [and] needs to be subject to careful constraints and safeguards and guidance,” he said. “I will be sure to be looking into that and working with the various parties – the privacy office, civil liberties, and civil rights office, etc., to make sure that any use of that kind of technology is going to be done in an appropriate way.”