Commentary

FTC Creates New Office To Examine Internet Of Things, Big Data, Other Emerging Tech

The Federal Trade Commission is beefing up its technological expertise in order to examine how the Internet of Things, emerging payment systems and even the use of Big Data are affecting consumers.

“New consumer technologies are coming online daily,” the FTC's consumer protection head Jessica Rich said today in a blog post announcing the new Office of Technology Research and Investigation. She adds that the unit “will make sure that the FTC is protecting consumers in emerging marketplaces.”

The new division will delve into matters including “privacy, data security, connected cars, smart homes, algorithmic transparency, emerging payment methods, big data, and the Internet of Things,” chief technologist Ashkan Soltani says in a separate post. The new office is hiring a research coordinator and creating a technology policy research fellowship for recent graduates.

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Soltani tells MediaPost that he expects the new office will conduct research similar to prior efforts of the agency's mobile technology unit, which produced reports on topics like mobile apps for kids and mobile payment systems. The 2012 report regarding mobile apps for children concluded that developers of those apps often fail to adequately tell parents what data the apps collect.

Soltani says the new office could examine matters like how connected devices notify consumers about data collection, noting that a one-size-fits all approach won't necessarily make sense.

For instance, he says, the same models that work for set-top boxes won't necessarily work for cars. “If you're driving down a highway at 65 miles per hour, you probably don't want to make to make a major privacy decision at that time,” he says.

He adds that privacy challenges posed by connected devices, and other emerging technology, will vary, depending on the details. Cars, for example, could be equipped with devices that reveal people's geolocation data, while health apps could collect or reveal sensitive medical-related information.

The FTC's move is the latest in a series of steps addressing technology's impact on consumers. In January, the agency said in a report addressing the Internet of Things that Congress should pass new legislation enacting broad privacy protections.

That report recommended “flexible and technology-neutral” laws that would provide guidance about the best way to give consumers a say over data collection.

Last week, the agency announced that it would examine another emerging technology -- cross-device tracking. The FTC intends to look at a host of issues, including whether companies are notifying consumers about technology that aims to track consumers' Web activity across laptops, smartphones and other devices.

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