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US to restrict sale of personal data to foreign adversaries

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In response to growing concerns regarding the misuse of sensitive US personal data by foreign adversaries, President Joe Biden is slated to issue an executive order on Wednesday aimed at curtailing the transfer of such information overseas, particularly to nations like China.

The directive will task the Justice Department with crafting regulations to safeguard Americans’ sensitive personal data, including genomic, biometric, and geolocation information, from being accessed or exploited by countries deemed as threats, as outlined in a White House fact sheet.

Identified countries of concern, which may include China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, have raised significant alarm over the potential privacy breaches, counterintelligence threats, and national security risks associated with the sale of Americans’ data. Notably, individuals within the military or national security sectors are particularly vulnerable, amplifying the urgency of protective measures, according to the White House. Moreover, there are fears that such data could be leveraged to target activists, journalists, dissidents, and political figures, thus stifling dissent and intimidating opponents.

President Biden’s executive order will also instruct the Justice Department to collaborate with Homeland Security in thwarting attempts by foreign adversaries to obtain citizens’ data through commercial channels, including investments and employment ties. However, the administration emphasizes that these measures are not intended to impede the necessary exchange of information for financial services or to sever US economic, scientific, and trade relations with other nations.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Department’s National Security Division underscored the gravity of the situation, stating that hostile foreign powers are exploiting bulk data and artificial intelligence to target Americans. Olsen hailed the executive order as a crucial step in fortifying national security defenses, addressing a critical gap in existing authorities.

While the executive order aims to enhance data security, concerns have been raised by groups such as The Software Alliance (BSA), representing major data cloud companies. BSA cautioned that the order could inadvertently disrupt legitimate commercial and research activities, urging policymakers to exercise caution before implementing broad restrictions that could impact various industries.

This latest executive order on data transfers represents the continuation of a broader trend of controls targeting the tech sector. Previous actions include restrictions on certain US investments in sensitive high-tech areas in China, such as quantum computing, as well as limitations on the export of advanced chips to China, including those crucial for artificial intelligence development.

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