Privacy Advisor

FTC’s Brill to Technologists: This Is Your Call to Arms

October 24, 2013

By Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/US, CIPP/E

Speaking at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill expanded upon her Reclaim Your Name initiative by declaring a call to arms for the next generation of computer scientists, engineers, programmers and technologists, asking them to help develop and create technological solutions to the Big Data-privacy quandary.

Using sarcasm to counter arguments that say “we need to scrap many of the basic privacy principles” such as over-collection, choice and consent, deletion and secondary use, Brill submitted her new realization of needing more than law and best practices to effectively protect privacy. “We also need new technological solutions to enhance consumer privacy,” she said.

The algorithms and processes used by the industry to assign data to a particular individual … are in need of modernization.
-Julie Brill, FTC Commissioner

“Policymakers like me and my FTC colleagues need to work hand-in-hand with you in the engineering and scientific communities,” Brill said. “This is your ‘call to arms’ … to help create technological solutions to some of the most vexing privacy problems presented by Big Data.”

Brill boiled her call to arms down to three mega-challenges: technological solutions for the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) and last but certainly not the least, difficult-to-address increased-transparency mechanisms.

“The process of collecting data, and synthesizing that data into profiles relating to individual consumers, is too error-prone for too many Americans,” she said. According to an FTC study, nearly 10 million Americans have had serious credit reporting errors. “The algorithms and processes used by the industry to assign data to a particular individual … are in need of modernization,” Brill said. “Consumers need new technological tools to obtain and understand their credit reports as well as better interfaces for correcting their data across multiple agencies.”

With an upcoming roundtable on IoT, the FTC is assuredly concerned about the trend’s privacy implications. Brill noted that much of current and future data collection will be exacted by technology without user interfaces or in situations when the consumer is not aware of the collection. To account for this, Brill highlighted the importance of building in privacy considerations “under the hood” from the start. If there’s no interface, consumers should be given choice.

And then there is that need for increased transparency mechanisms. Much of what is being collected now, Brill said, is not consumer-facing and is run by three main categories of data brokers.

“First, there are those who are selling consumer-specific data for purposes that fall right on—or just beyond—the boundaries of the FCRA and other laws,” she said. She cited the “new-fangled lending institutions” that avoid traditional credit reports in favor of their own reports “culled from social networks and other online sources.” Many companies that produce “e-scores”—scores that transmit to marketers whether certain customers are worth “wooing on the web”—are on the FTC’s radar.

A second consideration focuses on eligibility considerations to determine the risk level of a given consumer.

The final concern, and one Brill expanded upon quite noticeably, is data collection and use “to make sensitive predictions about consumers.” In addition to the now-almost-cliché, example of Target’s pregnancy prediction score, Brill expounded on a recent Financial Times report on firms such as LeadsPlease.com—which allegedly sells the personal information of individuals with cancer and clinical depression—and another broker named ALC Data.

Clearly, the issue of predictive analytics is on the FTC’s radar, particularly within the health environment. Brill said she is worried about how sensitive health data could be used to make decisions about an individual’s health insurance eligibility, the security of such data and the ultimate harm done to a consumer.

Technologists continuing to find creative and sound ways to de-identify sensitive data will be welcome, but, as Brill pointed out, “more robust de-identification will not solve the problem of Big Data profiling.” She noted that one solution could involve combining ethical considerations into creating algorithms—she advocated the hire of “a licensed professional with ethical responsibilities for an organization’s appropriate handling of consumer data.”

Brill echoed the FTC’s call on Congress to enact legislation to regulate the data broker industry but, in addition, proposed a “comprehensive initiative,” what she calls Reclaim Your Name. Such an initiative would “give consumers the knowledge and the technological tools to reassert some control over their personal data—to be the ones to decide how much to share, with whom and for what purpose—to reclaim their names. And you—the engineers, computer scientists and technologists—you can help industry develop this robust system for consumers,” she said.

Consumer-friendly services would help individuals find out how data brokers collect their information and allow them to redress inaccuracies. The initiative would improve the handling of sensitive data. The more sensitive the data, the more control and transparency would be given to the consumer. The user interface of such a program would be intuitive and industry would provide a one-stop shop.

Brill commended the work of Acxiom and their consumer-facing data portal, AllAbouttheData. “But there is still work to do,” she said. “Acxiom’s site provides some transparency, but does it show customers all the marketing information that’s relevant?”

She advocated for a data suppression system where consumers could opt out of having their data collected. Plus, she noted that Acxiom is currently only showing consumers their marketing data and not the data it uses for eligibility and other consumer-related decisions.

Brill concluded, “My ‘call to arms’ to technologists is not meant as an abdication of the responsibility that law enforcement, policy makers, Congress, industry and other stakeholders have to address these issues. We all have a vital role to play.”

Read more by Jedidiah Bracy:
Acxiom, MasterCard CPOs Talk Transparency, De-identification, FTC Consent Orders
Cato Conference: We Have Problems, Is NSA Biggest One?
Three Steps to Heaven, St. Rita and the Future of the EU Draft Regulation
Data Brokers, Universities Breached; Was Nurse Fired for Privacy Breach or Whistleblowing?