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President Biden Prohibits Mass Transfer of Citizens’ Data to Concerned Countries

President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order prohibiting the mass transfer of citizens' data to countries of concern. This Executive Order aims to safeguard sensitive information, such as genomic data, biometric data, personal health data, geolocation data, financial data, and certain kinds of personally identifiable information (PII), from the wrong hands. The U.S. government's primary concern is that threat actors could this information to track their citizens and pass it on to data brokers and foreign intelligence services. These entities can then use this data for intrusive surveillance, scams, blackmail, and other violations.

The U.S. government also expressed concern that commercial data brokers and other companies could sell this data to countries of concern or entities controlled by these countries. This data can then end up in the hands of foreign intelligence services, militaries, or companies controlled by foreign governments.

In November 2023, researchers at Duke University revealed that sensitive data about active-duty members of the military, their families, and veterans, including non-public, individually identified, and sensitive data, such as health data, financial data, and information about religious practices, could be obtained from data brokers for as low as $0.12 per record. The sale of such data poses , counterintelligence, blackmail, and national security risks. Hostile nations could collect personal information on activists, journalists, dissidents, and marginalized communities to restrict freedom of expression and curb dissent.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, the countries of concern include , Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. The U.S. government has determined that these countries have a “track record of collecting and misusing data on Americans.”

The Executive Order directs federal agencies to issue regulations that establish explicit protections for sensitive personal and government-related data from access and exploitation. These regulations should also set high-security standards to limit data access via commercial agreements. Additionally, the order requires the Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, and Veterans Affairs to ensure that Federal grants, contracts, and awards are not misused to facilitate access to sensitive data.

However, Senator Ron Wyden has expressed concern that the decision to limit personal data flows only to a handful of countries of concern is a mistake. He argues that authoritarian dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. cannot be trusted with Americans' data. These countries are likely to use the data to undermine U.S. national security and target U.S.-based dissidents. Moreover, these countries lack effective laws to stop the data from being sold to .

The latest attempt to regulate the data broker industry comes as the U.S. added 's Chengdu Beizhan Electronics and Canadian network intelligence firm Sandvine to its Entity List after the latter's middleboxes were found to be used to deliver targeting a former Egyptian member of parliament last year. A report from Bloomberg in September 2023 also found that governments in Egypt and Belarus had used Sandvine's equipment to censor content on the internet.

Access Now said Sandvine's internet-blocking technologies facilitated human rights violations by repressive governments around the world, including in Azerbaijan, Jordan, Russia, Turkey, and the U.A.E., noting it played a “direct role” in shutting down the internet in Belarus in 2020. The U.S. Department of State added the company to the trade restriction list, stating that Sandvine supplies deep packet inspection tools, which have been used in mass web monitoring and censorship to block news and target political actors and human rights activists. The has also been misused to inject commercial into the devices of perceived critics and dissidents.

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