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FTC Moves to Address Pervasive Commercial Surveillance

The wanton data collection and pervasive surveillance that has become ingrained in the Internet and mobile app economy for many years has finally caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which is now considering creating rules to crack down on those practices.

On Friday, the commission published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, which signals its intention to scrutinize the surveillance and data-collection practices of big tech and ad tech companies. The FTC is asking for public comment on the topic, and commissioners did not mince words when discussing the way that some platform providers and ad tech companies have dug themselves into consumers’ private lives.

“Tech advances over the last few decades have also dedeliberedl tools that enable persistent tracking of individuals. Businesses collect data on individuals in a stunning array of contexts and massive scale,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said during a news conference Friday.

The advance notice the commission issued simply publicizes its intention to look at the issue and asks for public comment. It is not a guarantee that the FTC will establish any rules, or what any rules might cover. One reason that the FTC is even considering this move is that the United States is one of the few major nations that does not have a national privacy law. Congress is considering one at the moment, but many prior attempts to pass such legislation have failed.

“We are almost alone in our lack of meaningful protection for this infrastructure. We don’t have civil rights protections suitable for this era and all of this landscape is ripe for abuse,” FTC Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya said.

The FTC will hold a public forum on the surveillance and data collection issue on Sept. 8 to allow individuals to comment. The commission plans to look at a wide range of behaviors by tech companies, including the ways in which they handle the data they collect and how the algorithms they employ influence consumer behavior and choices.

“For example, some companies fail to adequately secure the vast troves of consumer data they collect, putting that information at risk to hackers and data thieves. There is a growing body of evidence that some surveillance-based services may be addictive to children and lead to a wide variety of mental health and social harms,” the commission said in a statement.

“While very little is known about the automated systems that analyze data companies collect, research suggests that these algorithms are prone to errors, bias, and inaccuracy. As a result, commercial surveillance practices may discriminate against consumers based on legally protected characteristics like race, gender, religion, and age, harming their ability to obtain housing, credit, employment, or other critical needs.”

With privacy legislation pending in Congress, the FTC commissioners said they did not want any potential rulemaking process to clash with a possible new law.

“I am thrilled with the progress Congress is making. Its passage would mean real protection for consumers. I’d like to see it become a law. Until there’s a law on the books, the commission has a duty to use all the authority we have. I see our efforts as complimentary not competitive,” Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter said.

“It can inform any rulemaking or congressional debate. We are showing that we’re no longer shying away from using all the tools we have to deter unlawful conduct.”