FTC just lost key leaders in technology and data privacy
The US Federal Trade Commission has big ambitions to respond to cries from members of Congress and consumer privacy advocates to curb big tech. However, the agency – which has only nine technologists – doesn’t seem to have much of a chance in attracting and retaining the staff to do so. Three recent departures could thwart his hiring goals.
As it repeatedly calls for additional funds to hire more tech-savvy staff to help with data privacy investigations, the FTC suffered a setback last week with the departure of its top technologist, Erie Meyer, who left the agency after arriving on board. in June.
“The FTC has struggled to recruit many technologists for years,” said Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports, who was director of policy in the office of technology research and investigation. of the regulator. “They don’t have enough privacy lawyers, they don’t have enough technologists, they don’t have enough of anything.”
Meyer returned to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, an agency now headed by former FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra, to serve as chief technologist. According to a CFPB announcement regarding her return, she had also served as Chopra’s technology advisor while still at the FTC. During his brief stint with the FTC, Meyer outlined his tech-related hiring aspirations. Stephanie Nguyen, former Assistant Chief Technologist, is currently acting Chief Technologist in place of Meyer. Nguyen’s work involved user design interfaces, including research into deceptive design elements known as dark patterns.
In two more moves, two longtime consumer protection bureau directors are also ready to join law firms. Daniel Kaufman, former deputy director of the Office of Consumer Protection, left this month to join BakerHostetler’s digital asset and data management practice group. Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the FTC’s privacy division in the office, is expected to leave at the end of this week to Wilson Sonsini, who has represented Google for several years. The exits of Kaufman and Mithal were first reported by Politico. An FTC spokesperson confirmed the departures but declined to comment for the story.
Brookman called the departures a “big deal” and said of the FTC: “They’re going to be in a privacy holdover situation for a little while. The FTC is involved in tech industry cases that require technical knowledge, including its antitrust case against Facebook, which it revised to place more emphasis on data and privacy issues.
Who’s on tech and privacy
The FTC has nine technologists including Nguyen. In general, technologists working for the FTC support investigations as well as other efforts, including work unrelated to data privacy. They can assess code associated with a company’s technology or determine whether claims made in a legal complaint are technically valid, for example. Some could contribute to data privacy enforcement efforts within the Privacy and Identity Protection Division, which is often referred to as DPIP or “D-Pip” and is part of the Office of consumer protection from the FTC. Others assist legal staff in research and market studies for competition-related investigations and are not involved in law enforcement.
Lerone Banks joined the FTC in 2013 and leads technical investigations into privacy and data security as a technologist at DPIP. According to Banks’ LinkedIn profile, “Although his name rarely appears on legal documents, his fingerprints are found on all of the significant technical issues facing the FTC’s Office of Consumer Protection, including investigations into Apple. , Amazon, Google, Facebook, LifeLock, Equifax, Ashley Madison, and Zoom.
Being one of the few technologists at the FTC can be lonely, said Jessica Rich, former director of the FTC’s Office of Consumer Protection. She said the FTC has struggled to compete with corporate tech salaries and career advancement potential. “If the FTC had the funds and the power to hire multiple technologists, that would also make it a more attractive place to work,” she told Digiday in August. “You don’t want to be the only technologist in the privacy division that everyone turns to for everything; you want to be part of a professional cadre of technologists.
It’s unclear how many technologists or other FTC staff are focused on data and privacy issues. The FTC’s budget request for 2022 shows that it had a total of 63 privacy and identity staff in 2021. But the number of FTC staff focused on privacy issues. data and privacy could be even lower. Former FTC Chairman Joseph Simons told Congress in 2019 that the agency has 40 full-time staff responsible for data and privacy work. The FTC’s report to Congress on data privacy and security in September also put that rough figure of 40 to 45 people at DPIP.
Staff inquiries related to FTC privacy and technology
As part of its larger request for a 2022 budget increase, the FTC has requested $ 18.5 million to fund an additional 110 employees in total.
- Of those 110 new people, it asked for 13 additional employees at its Office of Consumer Protection to ensure privacy, data security and the use of emerging technologies in marketing, in addition to monitoring compliance.
- The agency also aims to add 36 more people to its Competition Bureau to identify and challenge mergers and anti-competitive behavior in “growing technology markets.”
Funding to “respond comprehensively to privacy breaches”
FTC President Lina Khan reaffirmed budget requests to fund more staff in an Oct. 1 statement on the FTC website, which noted its mission to more closely align enforcement of human rights protection. privacy and antitrust laws, recognizing that large digital platforms are strengthening their market power by collecting and monetizing data.
“Even in the absence of these increases, however, we must update our approach to keep pace with new learning and technological change,” she wrote. Khan’s statement mirrored what was written in the agency’s September privacy report to Congress, which said the FTC would use increased funding to support the hiring of more technical experts to “address holistically ‘privacy breaches’ as well as specific data-centric technologies such as algorithmic financial services and healthcare applications and technologies for targeted advertising.
Lawmakers have tried to secure more funding and resources for the FTC, often including it in various competition and data privacy related bills, including a bipartisan set of antitrust-focused bills. on technology presented in June to the US House of Representatives. The boldest move yet to secure additional funding from the agency came in September through an amendment to President Biden’s still pending Build Back Better Act that would give the FTC 1 billion dollars to be used over ten years. The funds would help the agency create a new office to deal with unfair or deceptive abuses of privacy and data security. However, its fate is subject to negotiations in Congress mired in the political quagmire over legislation.
Brookman said of the possible billion dollar funding: “That would be great, but by no means a done deal.”
Do not compete with its EU counterparts
In an effort to justify more money for the FTC, lawmakers such as Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the Illinois Democrat who proposed the $ 1 billion cash infusion, measured the limited staff of agency for data and privacy versus that of data protection agencies in Europe, where regulators enforce the EU’s General Data Privacy Regulation. Unlike the FTC’s 40 to 60 data protection staff, many of whom are lawyers rather than tech specialists, European data protection authorities have better resources, according to a recent report by the Irish Council for Freedoms. civilians.
- FTC: 9 technologists, 40 to 60 data protection staff
- Germany: 99 technical specialists / 745 other staff
- France: 30 technicians / 195 other staff
- Ireland: 28 technical specialists / 155 other staff
- Spain: 30 technical specialists / 139 other staff
Source: Irish Council for Civil Liberties
Although data protectors in Europe have more dedicated staff and technologists than the FTC, the Irish Civil Liberties Council – a membership organization that receives funding from human rights and civil liberties groups as well as the European Commission – argued that the European counterparts of the FTC need more resources. , too much. “DPAs in Europe are not set up for the digital age and still lack the capacity to investigate and understand what technology companies are doing with people’s data,” the report notes.
Lack of career path
In addition to the lack of funding, when it comes to hiring staff with tech expertise, the FTC has struggled to compete with the salaries and career advancement potential that tech companies can offer, said Rich. “There hasn’t been a career path for technologists,” she said. “So you can’t attract people who want a career in the FTC, and so they end up leaving to have a better career. ”
The FTC has another way, however, to bring in new tech people who are not paid from the congressional budget. It aims to hire part-time and full-time remote technologists who are qualified in a range of fields including ad technology, content management and disinformation, social media platforms and AI through the mobility program. of the intergovernmental law on personnel.
The program allows people to work for the FTC while being paid by their current employer for a period of up to two years.