New FTC Chair Warns Companies About Consumer Data Privacy

The new chair of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Edith Ramirez, says that the agency will pursue a more active role in policing companies that gather large amounts of data, and that the FTC will not hesitate to sue for privacy and security violations. Ramirez wants more transparency from companies that collect consumer data, as well as to keep this data anonymous. Ramirez did not provide specifics regarding how the FTC will enforce data protection guidelines.

President Obama selected Ramirez to lead the agency in March. This was a few months after Jon Leibowitz, the previous FTC chair, resigned during a controversial settlement with Google over allegations of antitrust, which critics claimed as being too soft.

The FTC has sued and enforced actions against Google, Twitter, and Wyndham hotels for not properly handling consumer data. The agency should preserve its proactive stance to ensure that innovation continues, but with consumer privacy maintained, according to Ramirez.

“The time has come for businesses to move their data collection and use practices out of the shadows and into the sunlight,” Ramirez said. “For too long, the way personal information is collected and used has been at best an enigma ‘enshrouded in considerable smog.’ We need to clear the air.”

Companies should practice “de-identification,” or removing personal aspects of consumer data to make is anonymous, explains Ramirez. Companies need to ensure that they are not “accidentally classifying people based on categories that society has decided — by law or ethics — not to use, such as race, ethnic background, gender, and sexual orientation.”

It is unclear what specific actions the FTC will take if companies do not follow Ramirez’s guidelines, or which companies top her offenders list, reports The Verge. But it appears that the agency wants to be perceived as a protector of consumer data, as it recently called for ways that consumers can see all the data that companies collect on them in one place.

Ramirez’s full speech at the Aspen Forum 2013 can be found on YouTube.