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FTC Starts Up New Tech Research Office

The Federal Trade Commission is launching a new research office to do deeper dives into privacy, new payment methods and the Internet of Things (among other things), the FTC announced in a pair of blog posts on Monday (March 23).

The new Office of Technology Research and Investigation (OTRI) is a successor to the FTC’s Mobile Technology Unit, which was created in 2012 to handle consumer issues related to mobile devices, including children’s privacy and mobile shopping data-use policies.

But the OTRI has a broader mandate and is hiring more technologists (its predecessor only had one) to examine privacy and security issues related to “connected cars, smart homes, algorithmic transparency, emerging payment methods, big data, and the Internet of Things,” according to FTC Chief Technologist Ashkan Soltani.

While that’s a broad mandate, the FTC has already gotten started in some of those areas — for example, in January the FTC issued a report on privacy and security issues involving the Internet of Things.

But exactly how much the OTRI will be able to do beyond researching these areas isn’t clear. In general, the FTC is limited to pursuing companies that misrepresent what they do or engage in false advertising. As a result, the FTC’s privacy enforcement actions have largely consisted of going after retailers who have violated their own published privacy policies. (The one exception to that is marketing online to children, which is covered by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. That puts much more stringent limits on what information website operators can collect from children under age 13, and how it must be handled.)

That means the new OTRI can investigate security and privacy issues, but there’s some question as to what else it can do beyond issuing reports. And as The Washington Post notes, the FTC is facing a potential turf war with the Federal Communications Commission over “net neutrality” and related privacy issues.

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