President Barack Obama will issue an executive order Monday that will allow U.S. officials for the first time to impose sanctions against foreign nationals found to have used new technologies, from cellphone tracking to Internet monitoring, to help carry out grave human rights abuses.
Social media and cellphone technology have been widely credited with helping democracy advocates organize against autocratic governments and better expose rights violations, most notably over the past year and a half in the Middle East and North Africa.
But authoritarian governments, particularly in Syria and Iran, have shown that their security services can also harness technology to help crack down on dissent — by conducting surveillance, blocking access to the Internet or tracking the movements of opposition figures.
Obama’s executive order, which he will announce during a Monday speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is an acknowledgment of those dangers and of the need to adapt American national security policy to a world being remade rapidly by technology, according to senior administration officials familiar with the plans. Although the order is designed to target companies and individuals assisting the governments of Iran and Syria, they said, future executive orders could name others aiding other countries through technology in crackdowns on dissent.