Biden Wants to Stop Foreign Spies Buying Americans’ Data

The president issued an executive order banning bulk sales of personal data to “hostile” countries like China and Russia.

Photo of U.S. President Joe Biden
Photo by U.S. Secretary of Defense via CC BY 2.0

Sign up for smart news, insights, and analysis on the biggest financial stories of the day.

You are no longer for sale in Beijing or Moscow.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order on Wednesday banning bulk sales of Americans’ personal data to “hostile” countries, including China and Russia. It’s aimed at preventing foreign intelligence agencies from simply buying up chunks of data en masse from data brokers — the companies that follow you all around the internet and suck up whatever information you leave behind. The order isn’t likely to be a massive shock to data brokers’ business models, as there are plenty of fellow Americans eager to buy up swathes of domestic user data, but it does establish boundaries in the previously limitless trading world.

Why Hack When You Can Buy?

Data brokers hoover up data in aggregate so anyone can buy it in bulk and then sift through it to deanonymize the person you’re looking for. Intelligence agencies most certainly buy from data brokers, including the US National Security Agency, which has reportedly been lobbying to preserve its ability to buy data without needing a warrant.

Wednesday’s executive order is aimed at a very specific kind of data incontinence, the wholesale transfer of particularly sensitive data from the US to hostile nations: 

  • “Even as the US government blocks illicit backchannel activity like computer hacking, our current policies and laws leave open access to vast amounts of Americans’ sensitive personal data,” a Biden administration official told reporters on Tuesday, per The Wall Street Journal.
  • The newly prohibited data transfers will include genomic, biometric, health, geolocation, and financial data, per the WSJ. The order also will restrict data brokers from selling the data of military personnel and government staffers, something which amazingly is for sale.

“Focusing on data brokers’ role in the international sale and transfer of citizens’ data certainly makes sense and I’m surprised it hasn’t gained more political scrutiny before this,” Samuel Woodhams, a privacy researcher at Top10VPN, told The Daily Upside. However, he added that there seems to already be a handful of exceptions to what data can be sold overseas, and the data broker industry might try to widen those loopholes. “It’s not enough to prevent certain data being sent abroad when it shouldn’t be collected and made available in the first place,” Woodhams added.

The China Solution: Burcu Kilic, an expert in digital trade and senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation, told The Daily Upside that by focusing on national security the Biden administration was taking a politically savvy move aimed as a warning shot at data brokers. “China sells in Washington,” Kilic said, adding that national security worries around China were legitimate, saying “China is the leading destination for data flows.” She said that Biden’s executive order is a good first step, but that the issue with data brokering isn’t hostile foreign powers, it’s the business model itself. “I think the question is: Who are the data brokers? Who is selling Americans’ data to China?” said Kilic.