FTC Launches Investigative Arm to Tackle Internet of Things, Big Data

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The new office aims to address all consumer technological risks, according to Chief Technologist Ashkan Soltani.

The Federal Trade Commission wants to make sure your refrigerator's privacy policy is on the level. 

On Monday, in a new push to examine consumer privacy in the realm of connected cars, smart homes and big data, the commission announced the creation of the new Office of Technology Research and Investigation.

The office evolved from the agency's mobile technology unit, an entity the commission created a few years ago to address mobile technology’s own unique consumer protection challenges associated with smartphones and other mobile devices, according to Ashkan Soltani, FTC's chief technologist. 

“The hope is to bring all of these individuals together, with a few more additional hires to form this more broad office of technology research that’s not just mobile specific but is looking at other issues,” Soltani told Nextgov.

Kristin Cohen, the current chief of the mobile unit, will lead the new unit.

The mobile unit currently has about 15 lawyers and technologists who are expected to shift over to the new office. The commission also plans to hire two new staff members and a handful of technology interns, Soltani said.

The office is also expected to work closely with the agency's "Internet Lab," which uses digital tools to protect consumers.

The launch of the mobile unit was prompted by the spike in popularity of smartphones, Soltani said.

One of the motivating factors for launching the expanded investigative office now is timing. When FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez hired Soltani last fall, she wanted to expand the technical prowess of the agency -- a goal he shared, he said.

“So it seemed like a good synergy and timing and motivation for people,” Soltani said.

The public should expect an uptick in the amount of new research coming from the new office, Soltani said. These will probably be similar to the mobile unit's reports, he said, citing a series of reports issued by the agency beginning in 2012 examining privacy concerns surrounding mobile apps targeted to children. 

Soltani also said the agency will blog more about its findings.

Among the areas the new office will take up are the Internet of Things and so-called smart home technology. 

"How do they operate?" Soltani said. "What privacy and security settings do they have?" 

Although an iPhone is different from a refrigerator, at heart they’re all still just types of computers, he explained.

“While some of the sensitivities will vary, the actual investigative technique is often the same,” Soltani said. 

(Image via Gil C/ Shutterstock.com)