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FTC Gets New Tech Chief in 2016

Growing concern over privacy has prompted the Federal Trade Commission to turn to academia for its new chief technologist. The commission announced this week that it has appointed Carnegie Mellon University professor Lorrie Cranor to assume that post effective in January.

She will replace Ashkan Soltani, who has served as chief technologist since November 2014. Soltani was a privacy practitioner who worked with The Washington Post to work some of the technical details out of surveillance programs revealed by documents from Edward Snowden.

Academic Background

Cranor teaches computer science and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, where she also directs the university’s CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory. A former employee of AT&T Labs Research, Cranor is also on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and previously worked at.

In a press release, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said that Cranor will play a key role in helping guide the many areas of FTC work involving new technologies and platforms.

As an academic, Cranor will bring professional background to the FTC that’s shared by the agency’s first chief technologist, Princeton professor Ed Felten, who now serves as a deputy U.S. chief technology officer at the White House.

Unstable Job?

When we reached Rob Enderle, founder of San Jose, Calif.-based Enderle Group, he noted that the Cranor appointment comes towards the end of President Obama’s term, a factor that brings uncertainty to the appointment that might have made it hard to find a willing candidate for the position.

“An academic will tend to be relatively independent from the companies they need to oversee but also may be poorly versed in the politics of the job,” Enderle says. “This suggests she will try harder than most to do the right thing, but may lack the skills to actually make progress…the industry will likely see her as a threat from day one, making progress even more difficult.”

Cranor will be the fifth person in the job since Felten assumed leadership 2011. No FTC technology chief has lasted two years, with Soltani’s 14-month stint being one of the longest-lasting.

Soltani hasn’t said what he’ll do next. The FTC has stepped up its expanded its technical capacity during his tenure, opening a new office dedicated to technology research and investigations earlier this year and also taking steps to secure visitor’s connections to its Web sites.

The commission gave up some privacy enforcement duties to the Federal Communications Commission when the latter agency starting administering the network activities of ISPs outside of its jurisdiction.

Enderle noted that Cranor’s work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation will be useful for her new post. He also predicted that she could be helped if a Democratic candidate such as Hillary Clinton wins the White House next November.

“In the end — likely largely because most of those that will oppose her will think she can’t actually get anything done — (Cranor) may make impressive progress,” says Enderle.

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