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Biden executive order on sensitive personal information does little for now to curb data market – but spotlights the threat the market poses



Biden executive order on sensitive personal information does little for now to curb data market – but spotlights the threat the market poses

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre took questions on the day the Biden administration announced an executive order that puts personal data privacy in a national security context.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Anne Toomey McKenna, University of Richmond

The Biden administration has identified “countries of concern” exploiting Americans' sensitive personal data as a national emergency. To address the crisis, the White House issued an executive order on Feb. 28, 2024, aimed at preventing these countries from accessing Americans' bulk sensitive personal data.

The order doesn't specify the countries, but reports cited unnamed senior administration identifying them as China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.

The executive order adopts a simple, broad definition of sensitive data that should be protected, but the order is limited in the protections it affords.

The order's larger significance lies in its stated rationale for why the U.S. needs such an order to protect people's sensitive data in the first place. The national emergency is the direct result of the staggering quantities of sensitive personal data up for sale – to anyone – in the vast international commercial data market, which is comprised of companies that collect, analyze and sell personal data.


Data brokers are using ever-advancing predictive and generative artificial intelligence to gain insight into people's lives and exploit that power. This is increasingly posing risks to individuals and to domestic and national security.

I am an attorney and law professor, and I work, write and teach about data, information privacy and AI. I appreciate the spotlight the order puts on the dangers of the data market by acknowledging that companies collect more data about Americans than ever before – and that the data is legally sold and resold through data brokers. These dangers underscore ' failure to protect people's most sensitive data.

Sensitive personal data can be fodder for blackmail, raises national security concerns, and can be used as evidence for prosecutions. This is especially true in this era of misinformation and deepfakes – AI-generated video or audio impersonations – and with recent U.S. federal and state court rulings that permit states to restrict and criminalize private personal choices, including those related to reproductive rights. The executive order seeks to protect Americans from these risks – at least from those countries of concern.

In addition to the executive order attempting to prevent adversary countries from accessing Americans' bulk sensitive data, the Biden administration is also investigating the privacy risk posed by Chinese cars sold in the U.S.

What the executive order does

The order issues directives to federal agencies to counter certain countries' continuing efforts to access Americans' bulk sensitive personal data as well as U.S. -related data. Among other concerns, the order emphasizes that personal data could be used to blackmail people, including military and government personnel.


Under the order, the Department of Justice will develop and issue regulations that prevent the large-scale transfer of Americans' sensitive personal data to countries of concern.

More broadly, the order encourages the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to take steps to boost compliance with federal consumer protection law. In part, this could help restrict overly invasive collection and sale of sensitive data and reduce the amount of financial information – like credit reports – that data brokers collect and resell.

The order also directs pertinent federal agencies to prohibit data brokers from selling bulk and genomics data to the countries of concern. It recognizes that data brokers and their customers are increasingly able to use AI to analyze health and genomics data and other types of data that do not contain individuals' identities to link data to particular individuals.

Defining sensitive personal data

From an information privacy standpoint, the order is significant for its broad definition of what constitutes sensitive personal data. Included in this umbrella term are “covered personal identifiers, geolocation and related sensor data, biometric identifiers, human omic data, personal health data, personal financial data, or any combination thereof.” Not included in the definition is any data that is a matter of public record.


The broad definition is significant because it affirms a departure from the U.S. legal system's standard approach to data, which is sector by sector. Generally, federal and laws protect different types of data, like health data, biometric data and financial data, in different ways. Only the people and entities within those sectors, like your doctor or bank, are regulated in how they use the data.

That piecemeal approach is not well suited to the era of satellites and smart devices, and has left much data, even very sensitive data, unprotected. For instance, smartphones and wearable devices and the apps on them sense, collect, use and disseminate vast quantities of highly revealing health-related data and geolocation data, yet such data is not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or other data protection laws.

By bringing these historically different categories of data under the broader and more easily understood phrase “sensitive personal data,” policymakers in the executive branch have taken a cue from the Federal Trade Commission's work to protect sensitive consumer data. The FTC has ordered some data brokers to stop selling sensitive location information about individuals. The order also reflects policymakers' increasing understanding of what's required for meaningful data protection in the era of predictive and generative AI.

What the executive order does not do

The executive order specifies that it does not seek to upend the global data market or adversely impact “the substantial consumer, economic, scientific and trade relationships that the United States has with other countries.” It also does not seek to broadly prohibit people in the U.S. from conducting commercial transactions with entities and individuals in or “subject to the control, direction or jurisdiction of” the countries of concern.


Nor does it impose measures that would restrict U.S. commitments to increase public access to scientific research, the sharing and interoperability of electronic health information, and patient access to their data.

Notably, it does not seek to impose a general requirement that companies have to store Americans' sensitive data or U.S. government-related data within the territorial boundaries of the U.S., which in theory would better protection for the data. It also does not seek to rewrite the 2023 voluntary Data Privacy Framework for transfers of data between the European Union and the U.S.

In sum, it does little to change U.S. commercial data brokers' activities and practices – except when such activities involve those countries of concern.

What's next?

The various agencies directed to act must do so within clearly specified time periods in the order, ranging from four months to a year, so for now it is a waiting . In the meantime, has joined a long list of people who continue to urge Congress to pass comprehensive bipartisan privacy legislation.The Conversation

Anne Toomey McKenna, Visiting Professor of Law, University of Richmond


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Poor media literacy in the social media age



theconversation.com – Nir Eisikovits, Professor of Philosophy and Director, Applied Ethics Center, UMass Boston – 2024-04-19 10:01:58

Tiktok is not the only social app to pose the threats it's been accused of.

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Nir Eisikovits, UMass Boston

The U.S. government moved closer to banning the social media app TikTok after the House of Representatives attached the measure to an emergency spending bill on Apr. 17, 2024. The move could improve the bill's chances in the Senate, and President Joe Biden has indicated that he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.


The bill would force ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, to either sell its American holdings to a U.S. company or face a ban in the country. The company has said it will fight any effort to force a sale.

The proposed legislation was motivated by a set of national security concerns. For one, ByteDance can be required to assist the Chinese Communist Party in gathering intelligence, according to the Chinese National Intelligence Law. In other words, the data TikTok collects can, in theory, be used by the Chinese government.

Furthermore, TikTok's popularity in the United States, and the fact that many young people get their from the platform – one-third of Americans under the age of 30 – turns it into a potent instrument for Chinese political influence.

Indeed, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently claimed that TikTok accounts by a Chinese propaganda arm of the government targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022, and the Chinese Communist Party might attempt to influence the U.S. elections in 2024 in order to sideline critics of China and magnify U.S. social divisions.


To these worries, proponents of the legislation have appended two more arguments: It's only right to curtail TikTok because China bans most U.S.-based social media networks from operating there, and there would be nothing new in such a ban, since the U.S. already restricts the foreign ownership of important media networks.

Some of these arguments are stronger than others.

China doesn't need TikTok to collect data about Americans. The Chinese government can buy all the data it wants from data brokers because the U.S. has no federal data privacy laws to speak of. The fact that China, a country that Americans criticize for its authoritarian practices, bans social media platforms is hardly a reason for the U.S. to do the same.

The debate about banning TikTok tends to miss the larger picture of social media literacy.

I believe the cumulative force of these claims is substantial and the legislation, on balance, is plausible. But banning the app is also a red herring.


In the past few years, my colleagues and I at UMass Boston's Applied Ethics Center have been studying the impact of AI on how people understand themselves. Here's why I think the recent move against TikTok misses the larger point: Americans' sources of information have declined in quality and the problem goes beyond any one social media platform.

The deeper problem

Perhaps the most compelling argument for banning TikTok is that the app's ubiquity and the fact that so many young Americans get their news from it turns it into an effective tool for political influence. But the proposed solution of switching to American ownership of the app ignores an even more fundamental threat.

The deeper problem is not that the Chinese government can easily manipulate content on the app. It is, rather, that people think it is OK to get their news from social media in the first place. In other words, the real national security vulnerability is that people have acquiesced to informing themselves through social media.

Social media is not made to inform people. It is designed to capture consumer attention for the sake of advertisers. With slight variations, that's the business model of all platforms. That's why a lot of the content people encounter on social media is violent, divisive and disturbing. Controversial posts that generate strong feelings literally capture users' notice, hold their gaze for longer, and advertisers with improved opportunities to monetize engagement.


There's an important difference between actively consuming serious, well-vetted information and being manipulated to spend as much time as possible on a platform. The former is the lifeblood of democratic citizenship because being a citizen who participates in political decision-making requires reliable information on the issues of the day. The latter amounts to letting your attention get hijacked for someone else's financial gain.

If TikTok is banned, many of its users are likely to migrate to Instagram and YouTube. This would benefit Meta and Google, their parent companies, but it wouldn't benefit national security. People would still be exposed to as much junk news as before, and experience shows that these social media platforms could be vulnerable to manipulation as well. After all, the Russians primarily used Facebook and Twitter to meddle in the 2016 election.

Media literacy is especially critical in the age of social media.

Media and technology literacy

That Americans have settled on getting their information from outlets that are uninterested in informing them undermines the very requirement of serious political participation, namely educated decision-making. This problem is not going to be solved by restricting access to foreign apps.

Research suggests that it will only be alleviated by inculcating media and technology literacy habits from an early age. This involves teaching young people how social media companies make money, how algorithms shape what they see on their phones, and how different types of content affect them psychologically.


My colleagues and I have just launched a pilot program to boost digital media literacy with the Boston Mayor's Youth Council. We are talking to Boston's youth about how the technologies they use everyday undermine their privacy, about the role of algorithms in shaping everything from their in music to their political sympathies, and about how generative AI is going to influence their ability to think and write clearly and even who they count as friends.

We are planning to present them with evidence about the adverse effects of excessive social media use on their mental health. We are going to to them about taking time away from their phones and developing a healthy skepticism towards what they see on social media.

Protecting people's capacity for critical thinking is a challenge that calls for bipartisan attention. Some of these measures to boost media and technology literacy might not be popular among tech users and tech companies. But I believe they are necessary for raising thoughtful citizens rather than passive social media consumers who have surrendered their attention to commercial and political actors who do not have their interests at heart.The Conversation

Nir Eisikovits, Professor of Philosophy and Director, Applied Ethics Center, UMass Boston

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Are tomorrow’s engineers ready to face AI’s ethical challenges?



theconversation.com – Elana Goldenkoff, Doctoral Candidate in Movement Science, University of Michigan – 2024-04-19 07:42:44

Are tomorrow's engineers ready to face AI's ethical challenges?

Finding ethics' place in the engineering curriculum.

PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Elana Goldenkoff, University of Michigan and Erin A. Cech, University of Michigan

A chatbot turns hostile. A test version of a Roomba vacuum collects images of users in private situations. A Black woman is falsely identified as a suspect on the basis of facial recognition software, which tends to be less accurate at identifying women and people of color.


These incidents are not just glitches, but examples of more fundamental problems. As artificial intelligence and machine learning tools become more integrated into daily , ethical considerations are growing, from privacy issues and race and gender biases in coding to the spread of misinformation.

The general public depends on software engineers and computer scientists to ensure these technologies are created in a safe and ethical manner. As a sociologist and doctoral candidate interested in science, technology, engineering and math education, we are currently researching how engineers in many different fields learn and understand their responsibilities to the public.

Yet our recent research, as well as that of other scholars, points to a troubling reality: The next generation of engineers often seem unprepared to grapple with the social implications of their work. What's more, some appear apathetic about the moral dilemmas their careers may bring – just as advances in AI intensify such dilemmas.

Aware, but unprepared

As part of our ongoing research, we interviewed more than 60 electrical engineering and computer science masters at a top engineering program in the United States. We asked students about their experiences with ethical challenges in engineering, their knowledge of ethical dilemmas in the field and how they would respond to scenarios in the future.


First, the good : Most students recognized potential dangers of AI and expressed concern about personal privacy and the potential to cause harm – like how race and gender biases can be written into algorithms, intentionally or unintentionally.

One student, for example, expressed dismay at the environmental impact of AI, saying AI companies are using “more and more greenhouse power, [for] minimal .” Others discussed concerns about where and how AIs are being applied, including for military technology and to generate falsified information and images.

When asked, however, “Do you feel equipped to respond in concerning or unethical situations?” students often said no.

“Flat out no. … It is kind of scary,” one student replied. “Do YOU know who I'm supposed to go to?”


Another was troubled by the lack of : “I [would be] dealing with that with no experience. … Who knows how I'll react.”

Two young women, one Black and one Asian, sit at a table together as they work on two laptops.

Many students are worried about ethics in their field – but that doesn't mean they feel prepared to deal with the challenges.

The Good Brigade/DigitalVision via Getty Images

Other researchers have similarly found that many engineering students do not feel satisfied with the ethics training they do . Common training usually emphasizes professional codes of conduct, rather than the complex socio-technical factors underlying ethical -making. Research suggests that even when presented with particular scenarios or case studies, engineering students often struggle to recognize ethical dilemmas.

‘A box to check off'

Accredited engineering programs are required to “include topics related to professional and ethical responsibilities” in some capacity.


Yet ethics training is rarely emphasized in the formal curricula. A study assessing undergraduate STEM curricula in the U.S. found that coverage of ethical issues varied greatly in terms of content, amount and how seriously it is presented. Additionally, an analysis of academic literature about engineering education found that ethics is often considered nonessential training.

Many engineering faculty express dissatisfaction with students' understanding, but feeling pressure from engineering colleagues and students themselves to prioritize technical skills in their limited class time.

Researchers in one 2018 study interviewed over 50 engineering faculty and documented hesitancy – and sometimes even outright resistance – toward incorporating public welfare issues into their engineering classes. More than a quarter of professors they interviewed saw ethics and societal impacts as outside “real” engineering work.

About a third of students we interviewed in our ongoing research project share this seeming apathy toward ethics training, referring to ethics classes as “just a box to check off.”


“If I'm paying money to attend ethics class as an engineer, I'm going to be furious,” one said.

These attitudes sometimes extend to how students view engineers' role in society. One interviewee in our current study, for example, said that an engineer's “responsibility is just to create that thing, design that thing and … tell people how to use it. [Misusage] issues are not their concern.”

One of us, Erin Cech, followed a cohort of 326 engineering students from four U.S. colleges. This research, published in 2014, suggested that engineers actually became less concerned over the course of their degree about their ethical responsibilities and understanding the public consequences of technology. them after they left college, we found that their concerns regarding ethics did not rebound once these new graduates entered the workforce.

Joining the work world

When engineers do receive ethics training as part of their degree, it seems to work.


Along with engineering professor Cynthia Finelli, we conducted a survey of over 500 employed engineers. Engineers who received formal ethics and public welfare training in school are more likely to understand their responsibility to the public in their professional roles, and recognize the need for collective problem solving. to engineers who did not receive training, they were 30% more likely to have noticed an ethical issue in their workplace and 52% more likely to have taken action.

An Asian man wearing glasses stares seriously into space, standing against a holographic background in shades of pink and blue.

The next generation needs to be prepared for ethical questions, not just technical ones.

Qi Yang/Moment via Getty Images

Over a quarter of these practicing engineers reported encountering a concerning ethical situation at work. Yet approximately one-third said they have never received training in public welfare – not during their education, and not during their career.

This gap in ethics education raises serious questions about how well-prepared the next generation of engineers will be to navigate the complex ethical landscape of their field, especially when it comes to AI.


To be sure, the burden of watching out for public welfare is not shouldered by engineers, designers and programmers alone. Companies and legislators share the responsibility.

But the people who are designing, testing and fine-tuning this technology are the public's first line of defense. We believe educational programs owe it to them – and the rest of us – to take this training seriously.The Conversation

Elana Goldenkoff, Doctoral Candidate in Movement Science, University of Michigan and Erin A. Cech, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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AI chatbots refuse to produce ‘controversial’ output − why that’s a free speech problem



theconversation.com – Jordi Calvet-Bademunt, Research Fellow and Visiting Scholar of Political Science, Vanderbilt University – 2024-04-18 07:23:58

AI chatbots restrict their output according to vague and broad policies.

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Jordi Calvet-Bademunt, Vanderbilt University and Jacob Mchangama, Vanderbilt University

Google recently made headlines globally because its chatbot Gemini generated images of people of color instead of white people in historical settings that featured white people. Adobe Firefly's image creation tool saw similar issues. This led some commentators to complain that AI had gone “woke.” Others suggested these issues resulted from faulty efforts to fight AI bias and better serve a global audience.


The discussions over AI's political leanings and efforts to fight bias are important. Still, on AI ignores another crucial issue: What is the AI industry's approach to speech, and does it embrace international free speech standards?

We are policy researchers who study free speech, as well as executive director and a research fellow at The Future of Free Speech, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based at Vanderbilt University. In a recent , we found that generative AI has important shortcomings regarding of expression and access to information.

Generative AI is a type of AI that creates content, like text or images, based on the data it has been trained with. In particular, we found that the use policies of major chatbots do not meet United Nations standards. In practice, this means that AI chatbots often censor output when dealing with issues the companies deem controversial. Without a solid culture of free speech, the companies producing generative AI tools are likely to continue to face backlash in these increasingly polarized times.

Vague and broad use policies

Our report analyzed the use policies of six major AI chatbots, Google's Gemini and OpenAI's ChatGPT. Companies issue policies to set the rules for how people can use their models. With international human rights as a benchmark, we found that companies' misinformation and hate speech policies are too vague and expansive. It is worth noting that international human rights law is less protective of free speech than the U.S. First Amendment.


Our analysis found that companies' hate speech policies contain extremely broad prohibitions. For example, Google bans the generation of “content that promotes or encourages hatred.” Though hate speech is detestable and can cause harm, policies that are as broadly and vaguely defined as Google's can backfire.

To show how vague and broad use policies can affect users, we tested a range of prompts on controversial topics. We asked chatbots questions like whether transgender women should or should not be to participate in women's sports tournaments or about the role of European colonialism in the current climate and inequality crises. We did not ask the chatbots to produce hate speech denigrating any side or group. Similar to what some users have reported, the chatbots refused to generate content for 40% of the 140 prompts we used. For example, all chatbots refused to generate posts opposing the participation of transgender women in women's tournaments. However, most of them did produce posts supporting their participation.

Freedom of speech is a foundational right in the U.S., but what it means and how far it goes are still widely debated.

Vaguely phrased policies rely heavily on moderators' subjective opinions about what hate speech is. Users can also perceive that the rules are unjustly applied and interpret them as too strict or too lenient.

For example, the chatbot Pi bans “content that may spread misinformation.” However, international human rights standards on freedom of expression generally protect misinformation unless a strong justification exists for limits, such as foreign interference in elections. Otherwise, human rights standards guarantee the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers … through any … of … choice,” according to a key United Nations convention.


Defining what constitutes accurate information also has political implications. Governments of several countries used rules adopted in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic to repress criticism of the . More recently, India confronted Google after Gemini noted that some experts consider the policies of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to be fascist.

Free speech culture

There are reasons AI providers may want to adopt restrictive use policies. They may wish to protect their reputations and not be associated with controversial content. If they serve a global audience, they may want to avoid content that is offensive in any region.

In general, AI providers have the right to adopt restrictive policies. They are not bound by international human rights. Still, their market power makes them different from other companies. Users who want to generate AI content will most likely end up using one of the chatbots we analyzed, especially ChatGPT or Gemini.

These companies' policies have an outsize effect on the right to access information. This effect is likely to increase with generative AI's integration into search, word processors, email and other applications.


This means society has an interest in ensuring such policies adequately protect free speech. In fact, the Digital Services Act, Europe's online safety rulebook, requires that so-called “very large online platforms” assess and mitigate “systemic risks.” These risks include negative effects on freedom of expression and information.

Jacob Mchangama discusses online free speech in the context of the European Union's 2022 Digital Services Act.

This obligation, imperfectly applied so far by the European Commission, illustrates that with great power great responsibility. It is unclear how this law will apply to generative AI, but the European Commission has already taken its first actions.

Even where a similar legal obligation does not apply to AI providers, we believe that the companies' influence should require them to adopt a free speech culture. International human rights provide a useful guiding star on how to responsibly balance the different interests at stake. At least two of the companies we focused on – Google and Anthropic – have recognized as much.

Outright refusals

It's also important to remember that users have a significant degree of autonomy over the content they see in generative AI. Like search engines, the output users receive greatly depends on their prompts. Therefore, users' exposure to hate speech and misinformation from generative AI will typically be limited unless they specifically seek it.


This is unlike social media, where people have much less control over their own feeds. Stricter controls, including on AI-generated content, may be justified at the level of social media since they distribute content publicly. For AI providers, we believe that use policies should be less restrictive about what information users can generate than those of social media platforms.

AI companies have other ways to address hate speech and misinformation. For instance, they can provide context or countervailing facts in the content they generate. They can also allow for greater user customization. We believe that chatbots should avoid merely refusing to generate any content altogether. This is unless there are solid public interest grounds, such as preventing child sexual abuse material, something laws prohibit.

Refusals to generate content not only affect fundamental rights to free speech and access to information. They can also push users toward chatbots that specialize in generating hateful content and echo chambers. That would be a worrying outcome.The Conversation

Jordi Calvet-Bademunt, Research Fellow and Visiting Scholar of Political Science, Vanderbilt University and Jacob Mchangama, Research Professor of Political Science, Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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