September 30, 2022

The FTC Is Closing in on Runaway AI


Teenagers deserve to grow, develop, and experiment, says Caitriona Fitzgerald, deputy director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a nonprofit advocacy group. They should be able to test or abandon ideas “while being free from the chilling effects of being watched or having information from their youth used against them later when they apply to college or apply for a job.” She called for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to make rules to protect the digital privacy of teens.

Hye Jung Han, the author of a Human Rights Watch report about education companies selling personal information to data brokers, wants a ban on personal data-fueled advertising to children. “Commercial interests and surveillance should never override a child’s best interests or their fundamental rights, because children are priceless, not products,” she said.

Han and Fitzgerald were among about 80 people who spoke at the first public forum run by the FTC to discuss whether it should adopt new rules to regulate personal data collection, and the AI fueled by that data.

The FTC is seeking the public’s help to answer questions about how to regulate commercial surveillance and AI. Among those questions is whether to extend the definition of discrimination beyond traditional measures like race, gender, or disability to include teenagers, rural communities, homeless people, or people who speak English as a second language.

The FTC is also considering whether to ban or limit certain practices, restrict the period of time companies can retain consumer data, or adopt measures previously subscribed by congressional lawmakers, like audits of automated decision-making systems to verify accuracy, reliability, and error rates.

Tracking people’s activity on the web is the foundation of the online economy, dating back to the introduction of cookies in the 1990s. Data brokers from obscure companies collect intimate details about people’s online activity and can make predictions about individuals, like their menstrual cycles, or how often they pray, as well as collecting biometric data like facial scans.

Cookies underpin online advertising and the business models of major companies like Facebook and Google, but today it’s common knowledge that data brokerages can do far more than advertise goods and services. Online tracking can bolster attempts to commit fraud, trick people into buying products or disclosing personal information, and even share location data with law enforcement agencies or foreign governments.

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