We have control of our destiny; why not our data?

FTC Commissioner Terell McSweeny joined Gigi Schumm on Women of Washington to discuss her passion of helping to protect consumer privacy in the digital era.

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With the recent Facebook breach hearings and other cases of cyber attacks, data privacy has become even more important.

On this episode of Women of Washington, Gigi Schumm welcomed Terrell McSweeny, commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission. Prior to her appointment by President Barack Obama, McSweeny served as chief counsel for competition policy and intergovernmental relations for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division

The FTC works primarily to protect consumers rights by preventing deceptive and unfair business practices. In a more digital world, this includes protecting consumer’s privacy on the internet and ensuring their information isn’t being used against them or for fraudulent purposes.

“When we’re talking about privacy, what we’re doing is trying to make sure that consumers are told upfront in clear terms — that they can understand — how their information is going to be collected and used,” McSweeny said. “Just relying on those long terms of service, those privacy policies that everybody clicks ‘I agree’ on and nobody reads, is not quite the right formulation.” 

It is true that we choose to share our data with a variety of sources when we download apps to our smartphones or shop online. But, consumers should still be able to expect a certain level of privacy.

McSweeny said that is why she developed such a passion for consumer privacy protection. She wants users to understand who else can see that data and how it will be used.

“I think we all want to take advantage of using apps and innovations. I mean, I love my smartphone. I love a good mapping app. I have to drive around Washington, D.C., so it’s terrific to have that option” she said. “I expect it’s using my geolocation, because how else would it work? But what I might not expect, depending on the kind of application you’re using, is that the information … goes on to have several other lives for other people who are trying to put a whole map together of where I usually am and how to market to me.”

The Facebook hearings shined a light on how little authority consumers and even the government currently has on data protection. Other countries, primarily in Europe, have already put laws into effect that give consumers more rights when it comes to who can see, reproduce or use sensitive data.

“We don’t have enough … enough authority to properly protect consumers,” McSweeny said. “We’ve been saying, look, we think there should be more transparency and accountability in that ecosystem because it’s very opaque. … We have some models for this. We don’t have to reinvent what we’re talking about here, but we have to pass some laws to make it happen.”

How did McSweeny start in politics?

Well, as a native Washingtonian, she served as a Capitol Hill page while in high school. She was also considered the first female head page. Like an intern, a Senate page works alongside the congressional staff as general helpers and messengers. But they too get to witness hearings, meetings and the passage of legislative from the front row.

Terrell McSweeny, FTC

McSweeny said she still interacts with many of her former co-pages.

“It’s a great civics education. You get to meet with other young people from really different walks of life who are just as interested in how our government is working,” she said. “A lot of us have stayed involved in government either in our home states or at the federal level.”

This part of her past is not what led her into politics, or into the law career though. She developed that passion as she grew older and found success in wanting to help those around her understand how the government works and how private information and data shared is being used.

In fact, McSweeny said if she were a better dancer, she would probably be practicing ballet. Her parents were well-known patrons of the arts. She said she didn’t even want to go to law school until she saw how the information would be useful in her political career.

We don’t always choose our path, but we have control over our destiny. McSweeny said worrying too much about success costs more than just doing your best and seeing where that takes you.

Her advice? “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Work hard, try to do good when interesting opportunities come along [and] go for it. Don’t too much about where you’re gonna land.”

McSweeny has served as an FTC commissioner since April 28, 2014. She announced earlier in February that she would be resigning. Her last day at the Commission will be April 27.

What’s next? She’s not sure.

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