It’s a new year, and the FTC’s sporting a new chief technology officer. Ashkan Soltani is his name, and online privacy programming is his game. A bona fide tech-head, over the past 15 years Soltani has worked on several high-profile, large-scale, Internet-related projects.
- In 2012, Soltani consulted on the FTC’s mobile forensics lab.
- He served as lead researcher for the Wall Street Journal’s ground-breaking “What Do They Know” series.
- Soltani helped develop and sell “Mobilescope,” a privacy app intended to improve “transparency” in the smartphone marketplace.
- As a grad student, Ashkan Soltani helped bring the issue of “Flash Cookie Respawning” to the fore.
Soltani’s Goals: “More Geeks and Better Tools”
A direct report to Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, Soltani says he plans “to work on expanding the agency’s tech capacity, or in other words, bringing on more geeks and better tools.”
When introducing himself to the press and public, the FTC’s new CTO also verbally felled an oft-argued criticism regarding the commission’s technological prowess, commenting:
“They’ve always addressed new markets even from the history of regulating emissions and cigarettes. While the agency may have enhanced those capabilities recently, it’s mistaken to say the FTC is just getting into tech.”
So, what issues does Soltani want to tackle during his tenure at the Federal Trade Commission? In his words:
“Algorithmic transparency. The idea is for the FTC to have better insight into how companies such as e-commerce, travel and financial services firms feed web behavior, location, demographic and other data into algorithms that determine variable prices.”
He also wants to explore issues related to “big data personalization” and:
“Create tools that would let a researcher or anyone identify how different people might see a website or service.”
In interviews, Soltani has made it clear that he’s not “setting policy.” Instead, he wants to help “the Commission…understand the way that privacy issues come into play as technology moves forward.”
Is Ashkan Soltani good for the FTC or bad?
Par for any political appointee, a schtikle of controversy surrounds Soltani’s employment. Skeptics consider his past projects and worry he may be a radical online privacy wolf in a politically neutral sheep’s clothing. But Soltani promised:
“My role at the FTC is not to set policy — the Chairwoman and the bipartisan members of the Commission do that — but I do play a role in helping I think a person with a strong track record of researching and investigating consumer privacy issues is, frankly, exactly who would be most effective in this role.”