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


“He’s trying to get you to bitch, Patti. Don’t do it.”

Poss, a lawyer who has worked at the FTC for more than 12 years, began to look uncomfortable, as though she was in the witness box, unsure what she was supposed to say. She made amends by noting she can use her office computer to look at the smart phone app descriptions posted on the websites where they are sold. Then she reversed herself.

“Actually, you can’t,” Poss said. “We have some restrictions on the sites we can visit on government computers.”

She hesitantly mentioned that Apple’s app store is among the sites blocked by the FTC’s security system. If she wants to look at the most popular websites for mobile apps, she has to go to a basement lab.

Farrell joined the conversation again.

“You’re not going to make this a gut-wrenching story about how Patti has to leave the confines of her office to do her work?”

***

The FTC maintains an aura of secrecy about its internet testing labs in Washington. Their location is known but not much else. Officials would not talk about the equipment in the labs. Poss and Farrell refused to divulge the number of iPhones and Androids, though it appears to be not much more than a handful. “I don’t want to lead you to think we have an unlimited supply,” Poss acknowledged before being discouraged from acknowledging anything more.

It is hard for outsiders to know more, because the FTC refuses to let reporters visit the labs.

“We’re not going to show it to you, no way,” said David Vladeck, who directs the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and controls access to the labs.

It was pointed out that government agencies conducting far more secret operations—such as the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency—often allow journalists and other outsiders to visit classified facilities. The embedding program during the Iraq war gave reporters the chance to report on the planning and execution of secret military operations. The FTC’s labs would not seem to rival the technology displayed when journalists ride aboard nuclear-powered submarines, for instance.

Vladeck would not bend.

“We don’t trust anybody,” he said.

Current and former FTC officials say the labs are the size of suburban living rooms, with computers and accessories that do not look much different from what would be seen at a Kinko’s. “There’s nothing special there,” Soghoian said. “It looks like a computer room in a public library or middle school.”

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