This is the FTC; This is the FTC on Acid
By Ken Magill
The squirrels running around in Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill’s brain must have dropped some acid last week.
How else to explain the utterly confused, maddeningly vague speech she gave to the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington?
First, she started with a whopper of a non-sequitur.
She used Edward Snowden—the fugitive who leaked details of some of the National Security Administration’s surveillance efforts—as an excuse to warn of the potential dangers of unknowingly exchanging information about ourselves for the conveniences of the Internet age.
“[I]t took Snowden to make concrete what exactly the exchange means – that firms or governments or individuals, without our knowledge or consent, and often in surprising ways, may amass private information about us to use in a manner we don’t expect or understand and to which we have not explicitly agreed,” she said, according to a written version of the speech.
Snowden did nothing of the sort. He helped chill relations with our allies and spurred a lukewarm national debate on what the limits of government surveillance should be.
To invoke him in a speech about commercial activity is beyond ridiculous. But then when your acid-tripping brain squirrels are giggling maniacally at the geometric colors shooting out of their paws, apparently nothing is too ridiculous.
Brill then went on to make a series of buzzword-laden demands that most assuredly had the thinking members of her audience cocking their heads to the side like confused dogs.
First, she called on “data brokers”—no one in Washington has even the slightest working definition of what a data broker is—to “de-identify” their data.
“The FTC has called on companies trafficking in big data to take both technological and behavioral steps to make sure the information they use in their advertising is truly and completely de-identified,” she said. “They should do everything technically possible to strip their data of identifying markers; they should make a public commitment not to try to re-identify the data; and they should contractually prohibit downstream recipients from doing the same.”
She then said what she had just called for is not fully feasible.
“[B]ecause much of big data is created through predictive analysis, and because much of the analytics are for the purpose of gaining insights into specific individuals, chunks of big data will always be, by their very nature, identifiable or linkable to individuals.”
As a result, she then called on some so-called data brokers to give consumers access to any information on them so they can change it or opt out of having it used for marketing purposes.
“Congress should require data brokers to give consumers the ability to access their information and correct it when it is used for eligibility determinations, and the ability to opt-out of information used for marketing,” she said.
There is no following the logic of the preceding three quotes. First, Brill is using words she couldn’t define if you threatened her with having to get a job where she actually has to produce something other people want to buy.
She has no idea what “big data” means. No one does. Big data is simply the latest stupid buzz phrase people use thinking it makes them sound smart. It doesn’t. It makes them sound like groupthink idiots.
Brill also has no working definition of what a data broker is. No one does. It’s simply a vague Washington-speak term that means evil, shadowy corporations who know too much about us.
So entities she can’t define using information she can’t define must irreversibly de-identify all marketing data unless it is used for eligibility purposes.
Eligible for what? Mortgages? Insurance? For those, we already have the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
In Brill’s own words from the very same speech: “[U]nder the Fair Credit Reporting Act, or ‘FCRA,’ entities collecting information across multiple sources and providing it to those making employment, credit, insurance and housing decisions must do so in a manner that ensures the information is as accurate as possible and used for appropriate purposes.
“The Federal Trade Commission has warned marketers of mobile background and criminal screening apps that their products and services may come under the FCRA, requiring them to give consumers notice, access, and correction rights.”
So when it comes to eligibility decisions, what the hell is Brill even talking about? If a mail-order cigarette merchant uses age verification, must it make its database accessible to the public? Will 17-year-old Johnnie be able to access and “correct” his information?
Clearly, Commissioner Brill has no idea what she’s calling for. She just knows it sounds good to people she wants to impress. Her latest speech was pure demagoguery.
Message to Brill: the acid-tripping squirrels in your head are calling. They want to go to the California coast, watch a sunset and talk to god, who it turns out is a giant, talking acorn.