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WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, President Joseph Biden signed an executive order designed to prevent foreign governments from accessing sensitive personal information on Americans and other people connected to the U.S. government.

The order empowers the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to restrict purchases of data by adversarial regimes seeking to undermine U.S. national security. The order directs these federal agencies to issue rules to protect against sharing U.S. persons’ sensitive data — including biometric, genomic and location data — with “countries of concern.” Among other things, the order calls on the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs to refrain from spending federal monies or providing grants that foreign countries could use to facilitate access to Americans’ sensitive health data.

Third-party sellers in the United States and abroad often repackage and sell such information without people’s knowledge or consent. “Companies are collecting more of Americans’ data than ever before, and it is often legally sold and resold through data brokers,” reads a White House statement about the executive order. “[I]t can land in the hands of foreign intelligence services, militaries, or companies controlled by foreign governments.”

The White House statement also urges Congress to pass comprehensive privacy legislation. Yet the White House has opposed congressional efforts to close the data-broker loophole as part of broader efforts to reform government-surveillance authority under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.   

Free Press Action Policy Counsel Jenna Ruddock said:

“Free Press Action is pleased the White House has called on Congress to pass comprehensive bipartisan privacy legislation, and set forth some protections against the sale of people’s personal data to foreign governments. But those prohibitions should extend to our own government as well. Loopholes in U.S. federal laws enable agencies like the FBI, DHS and NSA to purchase troves of our personal data, undermining the constitutional rights of people in the United States and Americans abroad.

“When it comes to the abuse of U.S. residents’ privacy rights, our own government should be listed among the so-called ‘countries of concern.’ For years, federal agencies have exploited these legal loopholes to buy massive amounts of personal information, particularly location data, from data brokers. The White House correctly identifies the risks these practices pose to our freedom of expression and other civil liberties, and should recognize that the sale of our data to U.S. government agencies and domestic law enforcement raises similar concerns. The White House and Intelligence Committees in Congress should also abandon any attempts to jam Section 702 renewals and expansions into must-pass spending bills on the horizon next month.”

Background: Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives canceled plans to hold a floor vote to extend controversial surveillance powers under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, after significant concerns were raised by members of the digital- and civil-rights community. Free Press Action has supported legislation, including the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, the Government Surveillance Reform Act and the Protect Liberty and End Warrantless Surveillance Act, that would ban all government agencies from buying Americans’ personal information from data brokers without a court order.

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