FTC chief pledges tight rein on data
August 23, 2013 in Medical Technology
Edith Ramirez, the Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission laid out the case for strong consumer protections regulating the private industry’s use of big data, as the agency asks Congress for the power to level civil fines against businesses for weak consumer data security.
Speaking at the Aspen Forum, Ramirez offered “A view from the lifeguard’s chair,” as her keynote was titled, alluding to her roots in coastal southern California.
“The already intricate data-collection ecosystem is becoming even more complex,” said Ramirez, whose term as commissioner ends in 2015. Ramirez pointed to the “Internet of Things” as a growing technology that will test the bounds of the law.
In addition to online and cell phone data, “households with smart appliances such as refrigerators, televisions, thermostats… will soon be widespread,” Ramirez said. “These devices will be connected to the Internet, collecting information that will end up in the hands of manufacturers, service providers and others. What are the privacy and security implications? These are questions we are thinking about at the FTC,” she said.
“The fact that big data may be transformative does not mean that the challenges it poses are, as some claim, novel or beyond the ability of our legal institutions to respond.”
The FTC, an independent federal agency that turns 100 years old next year, believes it has “an obligation” to protect consumer privacy, said Ramirez. Congress directed the FTC to prevent unfair commercial practices — “conduct that substantially harms consumers, or threatens to substantially harm consumers, which consumers cannot reasonably avoid, and where the harm outweighs the benefits,” said Ramirez, who prior to joining the FTC was a partner in the Los Angeles office of law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Sullivan, al law firm specializing in intellectual property litigation with clients including Google, Shell Oil, Motorola, Samsung and Sony.
Many companies are using data technology “in ways that implicate individual privacy,” Ramirez said. “The FTC’s role isn’t to stand in the way of innovation; it is to ensure that these advances are accompanied by sufficiently rigorous privacy safeguards.”
Ramirez argued for a consumer data framework that limits the collection of consumer data, as opposed to “after-the-fact restriction” limiting certain uses of data that’s collected, as many tech firms would prefer. “The indiscriminate collection of data violates the First Commandment of data hygiene: Thou shall not collect and hold onto personal information unnecessary to an identified purpose. Keeping data on the off chance that it might prove useful is not consistent with privacy best practices,” Ramirez argued.