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New FTC chief warns Google, Twitter, big data companies to respect consumer privacy

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The new head of the US Federal Trade Commission, Edith Ramirez, says that her agency will take a more active role in policing companies that collect large amounts of data, and that the FTC will not be afraid to sue them for privacy and security violations. In a toughly-worded "big data" speech delivered earlier today at a technology forum in Aspen, Colorado, Ramirez pointed to previous instances when the FTC has brought lawsuits and enforcement actions against Google, Twitter, and even the Wyndham hotel chain, all for not properly handling consumer data in various ways. In a recurring metaphor, Ramirez said the FTC's role was that of a "lifeguard." "Like the lifeguard at the beach... the FTC will remain vigilant to ensure that while innovation pushes forward, consumer privacy is not engulfed by that wave," she said.

Ramirez was selected to lead the agency by President Obama in March, a few months after previous FTC chair Jon Leibowitz resigned in the wake of a controversial settlement with Google over antitrust allegations, which some criticized as being too soft on the company. But Ramirez's speech didn't focus on antitrust or competition so much as it did on consumer privacy, security and the lack of transparency she observed when it came to how companies currently treat consumer data.

"the way personal information is collected and used has been at best an enigma."

"The time has come for businesses to move their data collection and use practices out of the shadows and into the sunlight," Ramirez said, later adding: "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." As far as specific steps she wanted companies to take, she pointed to the practice of "de-identification," or stripping away the personally identifying aspects of consumer data to render it anonymous. Ramirez further said companies needed to make sure they weren't "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's not clear what specific actions the FTC will be taking against companies that don't follow Ramirez's recommendations, or which companies are on the top of her worst offenders list. But coming as it did in the heels of another FTC commissioner's recent speech calling for a way for consumers to see — all in one place — the data companies have gathered about them, it's obvious that the agency wants to be seen as a protector of user data.