FTC Privacy Czar To Entrepreneurs: “If You Don’t Want To See Us, Don’t Collect Data You Don’t Need”

David Vladeck, The Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection (a wing of the FTC), was appointed by the Chairman of the FTC, Jon Leibowitz, in April 2009. Today, Vladeck took the stage to speak in conjunction with Dr. Ann Cavoukian, The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, to talk about privacy and consumer protection in the digital age.

Vladeck started out his portion of the talk this afternoon with a humorous analogy, saying that, for those unfamiliar with his job and what it is he does, he’s a bit like a gym teacher at the high school prom — with the high school prom in this case being the world wide internet. His job is to be a chaperone, or a regulator — as the case demands. Basically, to put it bluntly, he said:
“I’m the guy you don’t want to meet … and frankly I don’t want to meet you either”.

Tongue in cheek though his comments may have been, the invasion of privacy is becoming a serious topic in Web 2.0 and 3.0, and will only continue to be a tricky subject — for both businesses and lawmakers — moving forward. And today, whether intentionally or not, many businesses are not exactly towing the line of legality, according to Vladeck.

So what’s the biggest problem facing privacy at the current juncture? Vladeck said that it’s become of seminal importance for businesses, from enterprise to startups, to build privacy protection into their business models and into their big data sets. Today, app developers and consumer web companies are eager to pull as much data on their customers as possible, but they need to be more sensitive to privacy and data concerns.

According to Vladeck, many of these developers are overlooking protection specifically when it comes to children’s privacy. As more and more young people start using the Web, developers need to be aware that pulling geo-location data, email addresses, etc. of children is illegal, and that the FTC will be cracking down. Pulling data that can be identifiable to a specific child is unlawful and won’t be tolerated.

“We see developers of apps aimed at children pulling down geolocation data and emails”, Vladeck said. “And the law forbids them from doing that”.

The profusion of apps that are indiscriminately pulling geo-location data and personal information today, he said, has become a huge problem, to which he then issued a warning to all app developers and business owners, saying, “If you don’t want to see us, don’t collect data you don’t need”.

The privacy czar also touched, at least circuitously, on the proposed “do not track” bill (written by Ron Wyden, senator from Oregon) — which would essentially make it illegal to collect sensitive personal data without a warrant. Whether that pushes through remains to be seen, but to be sure the FTC and (at least a few) senators are keeping a close eye on how consumer information is being used and shared by web companies. “We’ve been very proactive in promoting giving consumers better control over their browsing habits”, Vladeck said, and companies like Apple, Google, Mozilla, Microsoft etc. (the companies that control the major market share of browsers) are taking the building of advanced controls into browsers and web search more seriously.

As for entrepreneurs, the privacy honcho advised them to be transparent about what it is that they want to do with the data they’re collecting on their customers, specifically not to be collecting and housing data that they’re not certain what they’ll use for — even if they think it may become advantageous at some future point.

“Look at our public education materials”, Vladeck advised entrepreneurs. “Lawyers at the agency will be glad to answer your questions. We do help a lot of startups figure out how to tailor business models in a way that allows innovation, but keeps them on the right side of the law”. And that’s what it’s all about.

Because, let’s be honest, you don’t want to be seeing David Vladeck any time soon.