FTC appoints outspoken privacy advocate Ashkan Soltani as new chief technologist

SAN FRANCISCO – The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday named an outspoken Internet privacy expert, Ashkan Soltani, as its chief technologist in a move that signals the agency’s focus on protecting consumers’ online privacy.

A computer scientist and technology researcher, Soltani has advised several leading news organizations in reporting on complex technical issues related to Internet privacy. Over the last year, he co-authored a series of Washington Post articles that examined government surveillance programs first revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The series earned a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service earlier this year. Soltani was a staff technologist for the FTC in 2010 and 2011, worked for the computer security company Sophos and has written about privacy vulnerabilities in consumer technology products on his own blog.

FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement that Soltani will advise the agency on “evolving technology and policy issues.” The FTC has shown a growing interest in online privacy, investigating complaints against major consumer Internet companies including Google Inc. and Facebook Inc., and negotiating several legal settlements with those companies.

Privacy advocates praised the appointment.

“It shows the FTC is increasing its regulatory scrutiny on current data collection practices” by online companies and data brokers, said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a non-profit watchdog group. “He understands how the industry operates.”

Soltani succeeds Latanya Sweeney, a Harvard computer scientist who is returning to the university to run its Data Privacy Lab.