How a lone grad student scooped the government—and what it means for your online privacy


He acknowledged the agency is hindered by a shortage of technical experts who can find the sorts of violations that Mayer stumbled on.

“We could for sure do more if we had more people,” he said while sitting in his office, which is nearly bare, with a few FTC posters on the walls, a small table and chairs, and a large desk for his two computers. “There are a lot of opportunities that we have to let go by because we don’t have the people to seize them … opportunities to measure and evaluate what’s happening every day in people’s computers and phones.”

Felten, who plans to resume full-time teaching at Princeton in the fall, was asked whether he has better technological resources there.

“Oh yes,” he replied. “That’s certainly the case.”

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The mismatch between FTC aspirations and abilities is exemplified by its Mobile Technology Unit, created earlier this year to oversee the exploding mobile phone sector. The six-person unit consists of a paralegal, a program specialist, two attorneys, a technologist, and its director, Patricia Poss. For the FTC, the unit represents an important allocation of resources to protect the privacy rights of more than 100 million smart phone owners in America. For Silicon Valley, a six-person team is barely a garage startup. Earlier this year, the unit issued a highly publicized report on mobile apps for kids; its conclusion was reflected in the subtitle, “Current Privacy Disclosures Are Disappointing.” It was a thin report, however. Rather than actually checking the personal data accessed by the report’s sampling of 400 apps, the report just looked at whether the apps disclose, on the sites where they are sold, the types of personal data that would be accessed and what the data would be used for. The body of the report is just 17 pages. (The FTC says it will do deeper research in future reports.)

The mobile unit has an equipment problem, too. Like most government agencies, the FTC issues BlackBerries to key officials. Poss, the unit’s director, has one. The BlackBerry dominated when Al Gore ran for president, but today it’s barely an also-ran with just 12 percent of the smart phone market. That’s not a problem if you only use your BlackBerry for texts, emails, and calls. But it’s a problem if, like Poss, your job is to keep track of what’s happening in the smart phone market. Most consumers use Androids or iPhones, and most of the apps written for them are not available on the BlackBerry.

If Poss wants to learn what’s going on in the 88 percent of the smart phone market that her BlackBerry cannot access, she would need to leave her office and go to one of the FTC labs, where she can use or check out an iPhone or Android. It’s a clunky setup, so she resorts to a familiar workaround: She uses her personal smart phones. She has an iPhone as well as an Android.

A moment after she mentioned this in an interview, she added, “I probably shouldn’t be saying that.”

FTC officials are reluctant to talk about their lack of funding, partly because public whining, especially during hard economic times, is infrequently rewarded. It’s also politically unwise. A vocal portion of the electorate believes the government and its regulatory arms have too much money and power as it is. Additionally, the FTC is trying to keep the tech industry honest by hinting that the feds are watching everything. It does not help if Silicon Valley realizes the FTC possesses just a handful of iPhones and Androids that are kept under lock and key in the basement.

The interview with Poss was conducted in an office on the third floor of the FTC’s headquarters, with an FTC spokeswoman on hand. When Poss was asked whether it wouldn’t make sense for the director of the Mobile Technology Unit to have a government-issued iPhone or Android, the spokeswoman, Claudia Farrell, interceded.

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