The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which is at the forefront of regulating the impact of information technology on consumers, is bolstering its technical resource capabilities through a new Office of Technology Research and Investigation, or OTRI.

The FTC’s significant and growing role in data security and privacy protection does not arise from any direct national security and cyberintelligence aspect of IT, more properly within the scope of the Department of Homeland Security.

Instead, the FTC is concerned about the failure of commercial entities to make adequate disclosures or to properly address data breaches and privacy issues affecting consumers. The agency’s leverage stems from its legal obligation to investigate business fraud and similar offenses.

Creation of the new technology office will “ensure that consumers enjoy the benefits of technological progress without being placed at risk of deceptive and unfair practices,” said Jessica Rich, director of FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The OTRI will provide expert research, investigative techniques for law enforcement, and further insights on technology issues involving all facets of the FTC’s consumer protection mission — including privacy, data security, connected cars, smart homes, algorithmic transparency, emerging payment methods, big data, and the Internet of Things.

The new office succeeds and will absorb operations of the existing Mobile Technology Unit, which was set up in 2011. Kristin Cohen, the current chief of the MTU, will lead the work of the OTRI.

“This is a natural evolution for the FTC. As technology gets more complex, and matters hinge on the use and misuse of technology, the FTC needs to be able to better judge whether organizations are doing the right thing,” said Lisa Sotto, a partner at
Hunton & Williams.

“Without a clear understanding of the technology that underpins the use of data, the FTC would not be able to carry out its mission effectively. Having more staff technologists will allow the FTC to better assess whether businesses are using technology in reasonable ways,” she told the E-Commerce Times.