When a massive tech company fails to protect your data, there’s a good chance the Federal Trade Commission will investigate.
But with breaches happening more frequently and more companies collecting data en masse, the FTC is having a hard time keeping up.
In a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing Tuesday, the FTC chairman and four commissioners testified about how the agency protects consumers’ data privacy. They noted the FTC is doing as much as it can with its resources, but at the pace companies are collecting data, it soon may not be enough.
“I don’t think we have enough resources right now to do the job that Congress expects of us,” Rebecca Slaughter, a Democratic FTC commissioner, said at the hearing.
In her opening statement, she noted that the FTC had 50 percent more employees in the beginning of the Reagan administration than it does today.
Despite that, the FTC keeps a watchful eye on tech giants like Google and Facebook mishandling. The agency currently has an open investigation on Facebook over its Cambridge Analytica scandal as well as in September 2017.
“If you read about it in the press, if there’s a congressional letter that points out a potential problem, we are on it. We look at those things very carefully,” said FTC Chairman Joseph Simons.
In the last few months, Congress members have sent letters regarding major tech issues like deepfakes, Google’s, and Amazon and facial recognition, among many others. And as data collection becomes more valuable, the FTC will have to spread its resources to oversee data issues from industries including cars, agriculture and stores.
Consider how much data self-driving cars need, or businesses like Walmart experimenting with facial recognition of customers. The FTC expects data collection to boom, and warns that it’ll need more resources to keep companies in check.
“When cities grow and get much bigger, they hire more cops,” said Rohit Chopra, a Democratic FTC commissioner. “We have to do the same for us.”
Data has become extremely valuable for companies, as Chopra compared it to gold during Tuesday’s testimony.
It’s also shown to be useful for malicious purposes. Facebook’s data abuse scandal with Cambridge Analytica allowed the UK analytics firm to amass data on 87 million Facebook profiles, using it to target political advertising.
“We have seen this year that the misuse and abuse of our data represents not only a threat to consumer safety, but also national security, the defense of our nation, and the health of our democracy,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut.
More resources for the FTC would mean more employees and technologists, Slaughter said. It could also mean giving the FTC more power to enforce against data abuse in future legislation. Currently, the FTC is only able to fine tech companies for violations if they agree to a consent decree.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has proposed legislation that would give the FTC the authority to penalize tech companies over data abuse, including jail time.
As data collection evolves, the FTC is looking at more efficient ways to protect consumer privacy, Chopra said.
“There’s clearly a race to get all of our data and figure out how to monetize it in a big way,” the commissioner said.
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