FTC's Edith Ramirez: Connected health devices create bevy of privacy risks

For much of 2014, the Federal Trade Commission made it a point to be a prominent voice regarding the protection of consumer health information. Last May, for instance, it published a report recommending that Congress force data brokers to be more transparent about how they use the personal information of consumers, including health information.

And in July, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill spoke about how consumers should be given more choices from developers when it comes to data sharing by smartphone apps gathering health information.

That trend continued Tuesday at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez spoke about privacy protection, including for health data. Ramirez noted, for instance, that while the Internet of Things has the potential to improve global health, the risks are massive.

"Connected devices that provide increased convenience and improve health services are also collecting, transmitting, storing and often sharing vast amounts of consumer data, some of it highly personal, thereby creating a number of privacy risks," Ramirez said. "These risks to privacy and security undermine consumer trust."

Ramirez outlined three challenges to consumer privacy presented by the Internet of Things:

  • Ubiquitous data collection
  • Unexpected data use resulting in adverse consequences
  • Increased security risks

Additionally, she said that technology developers must take three steps to ensure consumer privacy:

  • Adopt "security by design"
  • Engage in data minimization
  • Boost transparency and offer consumers choices for data usage

"[T]he risks that unauthorized access create intensify as we adopt more and more devices linked to our physical safety, such as our cars, medical care and homes," Ramirez said.

Members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform questioned the FTC's health data and cybersecurity authority at a hearing last summer. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said that safeguards are needed to guide the FTC's processes in determining entities subject to security enforcement.

Last January, the agency ruled that entities covered under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act may also be subject to security enforcement by the FTC.

To learn more:
- here's Ramirez's speech (.pdf)

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