New FTC Tech Chief Wants to Get His Hands Dirty with Code

Ashkan Soltani Has a New Whiteboard and He's Ready to Use It

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Ashkan Soltani, FTC chief technologist
Ashkan Soltani, FTC chief technologist

In March, Ashkan Soltani appeared alongside Steve Kroft of CBS's "60 Minutes," where he showed the journalist how online tracking technologies gather data as we traverse the web. Today, Mr. Soltani is about a month into his latest and perhaps most high-profile role in a long line of data privacy and technology consulting gigs as the new chief technology officer of the Federal Trade Commission.

He's no stranger to the agency, though. He served as a tech consultant to the FTC about five years ago, and in 2012 helped build the commission's mobile forensics lab, also as a consultant. That project was not unlike work he did for The Wall Street Journal to establish an environment used to research mobile devices and Internet technologies and how they gather and employ user data for the paper's "What Do They Know" series.

Reporting directly to FTC Chairman Edith Ramirez, Mr. Soltani is just getting his feet wet in the public service position, but he has a clear sense of what he expects to focus on there.

"I plan to work on expanding the agency's tech capacity, or in other words, bringing on more geeks and better tools," he said.

The agency only created the chief technologist position in 2010. Before then, it hired tech consultants when necessary for research and investigations; however, Mr. Soltani stressed that the agency did not lack technology expertise before that.

"They've always addressed new markets even from the history of regulating emissions and cigarettes," he said. While the agency may have enhanced those capabilities recently, he added, "it's mistaken to say the FTC is just getting into tech."

In addition to data security issues as they relate to the consumer protection oversight that the FTC is known for, a key focus he expects to emphasize is what he calls "algorithmic transparency." The idea is for the FTC to have better insight into how companies such as ecommerce, travel and financial services firms feed web behavior, location, demographic and other data into algorithms that determine variable prices, something the FTC and consumer advocates worry could result in discrimination.

The FTC in September held a public workshop titled "Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?" to evaluate potential harm from dynamic pricing, loyalty program benefits, credit scoring, ad targeting and other data-fueled practices.

"A lot of what I want to do is try to both help the agency and help companies understand potentially where the pitfalls may lay," he said. To do that, he intends to "create tools that would let a researcher or anyone identify how different people might see a website or service." One goal is to build software that would statistically measure how companies use data analysis to vary pricing, for example.

Having just started on the FTC staff on Nov. 3, he said, "I haven't quite got my hands dirty yet in terms of writing code." Thus far most of his time has been spent researching, reading and attending meetings. At the FTC headquarters in Washington, he does have that all-important canvas for any data or tech professional: a whiteboard.

"My new office is a bit Spartan, but I did just manage to get a whiteboard installed, which is a win," he told Ad Age.

Mr. Soltani shared more about how he will tackle the chief technologist role at the FTC in an email Q&A with Ad Age.

Ad Age: Tell us a little about your day-to-day at the FTC? Who do you work closely with and what are typical things you do?

Mr. Soltani: I don't really have an average day-to-day in this position, but a lot of what I do at the FTC is similar to what I've always done in my career to date: research technical matters relating to consumer privacy and security issues to develop a clearer understanding of these areas and possible implications for consumers.

I report to and work for Chairwoman Ramirez and work to help support her team of attorney advisors where I best can. However, I'm also a resource for the entire agency, including the four other commissioners, the staff, and the internal tech teams. And, of course, I'm also a public servant and hope my work and insights will help all consumers.

Ad Age: What work have you done in the private sector that you believe will most inform projects you take on at the FTC?

Mr. Soltani: Much of the work I have done in the past five years will help to inform the projects I undertake here at the Commission focused on consumer protection, tracking, and mobile privacy.

I started my career as a network security consultant and then later focused on privacy. My grad school work was essentially a deep dive on the state of online tracking. I was also part of the team to first highlight the industry practices known as "Flash Cookie Respawning."

This culminated into the Wall Street Journal's "What They Know" series, for which I was the primary researcher. This two-year long project examined the state of consumer privacy, including demonstrating that companies charge consumers different prices for basic everyday items like staplers based on information websites glean about them.

Since, I've been working with news organizations and consumer protection agencies (including State AGs) to highlight some of the important privacy and security issues that consumers encounter in the new, tech-driven marketplace.

I also helped build and sell a mobile privacy startup [called Mobilescope] to help improve transparency in the mobile smartphone marketplace.

Ad Age: The FTC has focused a lot on mobile privacy over the past year or so under Chairman Ramirez. What issues can we expect you to show interest in under the auspices of FTC?

Mr. Soltani: I think mobile privacy will continue to be an important issue; the consumer move to mobile continues apace and mobile is rapidly evolving into wearables, IoT, and ubiquitous devices. I would expect the agency to keep pace with these developments and that it will continue to be a priority for the Chairwoman.

Similarly, I think the use of big data and personalization will continue to be an important issue, not just in advertising, but also in ways we're just now seeing develop and evolve, such as when searching for a job or a new home.

Finally, data security. As I noted, it is a fundamental issue in thinking about consumer protection. The data breaches we have seen just in the past few months have helped put data security in the forefront of people's thinking about how they can stay safe in the marketplace, and the FTC is well-positioned to act on that.

Ad Age: There remains debate over whether mobile device IDs should be considered personally-identifiable information or not. In your view, what should the FTC's decision on this be?

Mr. Soltani: I don't speak for the Commission, but I think we've seen a shift in that direction recently. Under the recently revised COPPA Rule, mobile-device IDs are considered personal information when it comes to children under 13. I think mobile-device IDs are considered PII under our COPPA rules.

Additionally, in the Commission's case against HTC from last year, device IDs are also discussed in the documents as "covered information" under the terms of the settlement.

Ad Age: The IAB criticized the fact that FTC hired you as chief technologist, suggesting that someone with a more objective perspective might better serve FTC as opposed to someone who's advocated for privacy. What do you think of that opinion?

Mr. Soltani: 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 the Commission and the staff understand the way that privacy issues come into play as technology moves forward.

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.