US President Joe Biden is to issue an executive order that will halt the transfer of Americans’ sensitive personal data to hostile nations.

The White House announced on Wednesday that the Executive Order is “to protect Americans’ sensitive personal data from exploitation by countries of concern.”

Countries of concern that are being targetted for restrictions on data transfers includes the usual suspects, namely China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela.

Image credit: US government

Executive order

The White House said the Executive Order marks the most significant executive action any President has ever taken to protect Americans’ data security.

“The order authorises the Attorney General to prevent the large-scale transfer of Americans’ personal data to countries of concern and provides safeguards around other activities that can give those countries access to Americans’ sensitive data,” the White House stated.

So what data is the US seeking to safeguard?

Well, according to the White House, the President’s Executive Order focuses on Americans’ most personal and sensitive information, including genomic data, biometric data, personal health data, geolocation data, financial data, and certain kinds of personally identifiable information.

The US is concerned that “bad actors” could 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.

This data can enable intrusive surveillance, scams, blackmail, and other violations of privacy, the US stated.

It comes amid growing awareness that companies are gathering and collecting more of Americans’ data than ever before, which the US says is often legally sold and resold through data brokers.

It pointed out that commercial data brokers and other companies can sell this data to countries of concern, or entities controlled by those countries, and it can land in the hands of foreign intelligence services, militaries, or companies controlled by foreign governments.

The White House said that this sale of Americans’ data raises significant privacy, counterintelligence, blackmail risks and other national security risks – especially for those in the military or national security community.

Countries of concern can also access Americans’ sensitive personal data to collect information on activists, academics, journalists, dissidents, political figures, and members of non-governmental organisations and marginalised communities to intimidate opponents of countries of concern, curb dissent, and limit Americans’ freedom of expression and other civil liberties.

Specific steps

President Biden is therefore directing the following actions to protect Americans’ sensitive personal data:

  • The Department of Justice to issue regulations that establish clear protections for Americans’ sensitive personal data from access and exploitation by countries of concern. They will prevent the large-scale transfer of that data to countries of concern – which have a track record of collecting and misusing data on Americans.
  • The Department of Justice to issue regulations that establish greater protection of sensitive government-related data, including geolocation information on sensitive government sites and information about military members.
  • The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to work together to set high security standards to prevent access by countries of concern to Americans’ data through other commercial means, such as data available via investment, vendor, and employment relationships.
  • The Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, and Veterans Affairs to help ensure that Federal grants, contracts, and awards are not used to facilitate access to Americans’ sensitive health data by countries of concern, including via companies located in the United States.
  • The Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector to consider the threats to Americans’ sensitive personal data in its reviews of submarine cable licenses.
  • Finally that these activities do not stop the flow of information necessary for financial services activities or impose measures aimed at a broader decoupling of the substantial consumer, economic, scientific, and trade relationships that the United States has with other countries.

In addition, President Biden continues to urge Congress to do its part and pass comprehensive bipartisan privacy legislation on the matter.

It comes as the US Congress mulls legislation to ban federal agencies from contracting with China’s BGI Group and Wuxi APPTEC, to prevent China from accessing American genetic data and personal health information.

This executive order will likely also mean there will be much greater scrutiny of any acquisition of a US firm that handles American data, by an entity from the identified countries of concern.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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