Biden Issues Executive Order to Protect Americans’ Sensitive Data From Being Leaked to Foreign Adversaries

Kos Temenes
By Kos Temenes
February 28, 2024Executive Branch
President Joe Biden is signing an executive order aimed at better protecting Americans' personal data on everything from biometrics and health records to finances and geolocation from foreign adversaries like China and Russia.

President Joe Biden is signing an executive order on Feb. 28 that seeks to better protect Americans’ personal data from foreign adversaries. This would apply to all personal data, ranging from biometrics and geolocation to finances and health records, and would act specifically in relation to countries like China and Russia.

According to senior White House officials, the aim is to prevent the large-scale transfer of Americans’ personal data, but without limiting legitimate commerce around such information.

It would involve efforts by the attorney general and other federal agencies to implement the measures to restrict access to sensitive data by what the White House referred to as “countries of concern,” while putting additional safeguards in place that would prevent these countries from obtaining sensitive data through other means.

The measure is specifically aimed at commercial data firms, which often use illegal or questionable means to obtain personal data which, in turn, is sold to foreign adversaries or U.S. entities controlled by those countries.

Before the measure can be implemented, however, it will likely have to undergo a lengthy and complicated regulatory process. Nonetheless, the Biden administration is hopeful that it will eventually result in limiting foreign entities, as well as foreign-controlled companies operating in the United States, from obtaining and re-distributing sensitive data, the officials added.

While data brokers are operating legally in the United States by gathering and categorizing personal information from millions of Americans, the methods applied are often dubious. The companies use the collected information to build profiles on American citizens, which are then sold on by the brokers.

According to the officials, there is an apparently conflicting situation in which obtaining and distributing information is legal—in contrast to other activities such as computer hacking, which is prohibited in the United States.

The conflict, in this case, is mainly centered around a gap in the nation’s national security protections, whereby brokers are allowed to buy data—although this information could potentially ending up in the hand’s of an adversary, which the new measure aims to address.

“Bad actors can use this data to track Americans, including military service members, pry into their personal lives, and pass that data on to other data brokers and foreign intelligence services,” the White House wrote in a fact sheet announcing the move. “This data can enable intrusive surveillance, scams, blackmail, and other violations of privacy.”

The move implemented by the Biden administration authorizes the Department of Justice to implement regulations that serve to protect Americans’ sensitive personal data, as well as sensitive government-related data. This also includes geolocation information on sensitive government sites and members of the military.

Moreover, it will facilitate closer cooperation between the Justice Department and Homeland Security officials, allowing for improved safety standards in preventing foreign adversaries from gathering sensitive data.

This also incorporates more stringent checks on federal grants issued to other agencies, such as the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, to ensure that the grants don’t compromise Americans’ sensitive data through external entities’ affiliation with U.S. companies.

The countries of concern specified by the administration officials include multiple totalitarian regimes—several of which operate under communist leadership, such as China, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela.

The officials also determined that Russia is a country of concern. This is largely due to its military engagement in Ukraine, as well as recently bolstered ties with communist regimes in China and North Korea.

Needless to say, China is of particular concern to the administration, predominantly due to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) connection to ByteDance Ltd., which owns TikTok, a social media platform used by over 150 million Americans.

Effectively, the CCP executes significant control over Chinese companies, stoking additional fears over compromised data and espionage.

This has led to several officials, including Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), publicly stating that private businesses are effectively non-existent under regimes like that in China.

“There’s no such thing as a private business in China,” said Mr. Gallagher, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party.

While the officials emphasized that the executive order is aimed at working concurrently with legislative action, it should be noted that several previous bills, which sought to implement similar directives relating to privacy protections, have not received Congressional approval.

The most recent executive order issued by President Biden comes on the back of another order the president issued last fall, which seeks to balance the needs of cutting-edge technology companies with national security and consumer rights.

The directive was issued with the intention of navigating how companies can profit using Artificial Intelligence (AI) without compromising public safety, and by implementing adequate safety measures to ensure the technology is utilized in a trustworthy and helpful manner, as opposed to being used for malevolent and destructive purposes.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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