FTC chair Edith Ramirez on CES, the future of the agency and how you can win $25,000

The Federal Trade Commission announced Thursday that it has filed a complaint against D-Link, a router and Web-connected camera maker, alleging that it does not adequately protect consumers from hacks. (D-Link did not respond to a request for comment.)

Ahead of that announcement, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez sat down with us at CES to talk about why consumers should pay attention to the security on all their devices, why she wants to pay out $25,000 to someone with a good idea and how she thinks the FTC will operate under President Donald Trump.

The FTC confirmed that Ramirez (D) and other senior FTC officials have had preliminary meetings with members of the Trump transition team.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We’ve previously spoken here about security and the Internet of Things (IoT). What evolution have you seen on that front?

Data security, broadly speaking, continues to be one of the biggest issues that we face as a nation. You see consumers increasingly using connected devices in their homes — connected appliances, using fitness and other wearables — and it’s becoming more of an issue.

I’m sure you read about, in October, the Mirai botnet attack where you saw malicious code being used to basically take over insecure Internet devices. That’s a very significant problem. That [attack] exposed and brought a lot of attention to the issue. I think industry and consumers need to be paying more attention to it.

You announced a security contest for Internet of Things devices on Wednesday. What led to that decision?

Oftentimes you have manufacturers who are creating default passwords — for instance, the password issue was what allowed the Mirai botnet attack. Another issue you often see is that because the [IoT] devices are often low-cost and small, they really have limited processing power. So, updating and patching oftentimes doesn’t happen. That creates security vulnerabilities.

We just announced [Wednesday] an initiative where we are giving out a cash prize of $25,000 to anyone who will come up with a device that will help consumers easily identify and address vulnerabilities with their devices in their home. Our hope is that this will encourage technological innovation and, hopefully, not only draw attention to the issue but also encourage new inventions to try to provide solutions to consumers to tackle this issue.

How do you envision such a product would work?

Ideally, the concept — and we’ll see what people come up with — is that it would be a device that would allow you to identify vulnerabilities in all the various devices that you have at home that are connected to the Internet. It would then be able to also push updates or patches to address those vulnerabilities.

It’d be great if this particular tool could also be used to encourage consumers to create new passwords — when manufacturers use the same default password on multiple devices, that’s what allows criminal hackers to then try to manipulate these devices. So, if this new tool could also encourage [consumers] to do that, that would be very, very beneficial.

What are some things that you’re going to want to see at this year’s show?

One of the reasons I’m here, along with other commissioners and staff members, is that we want to see what kind of innovation is out there. We want to see what kinds of products are coming onto the market, because it helps us to understand not only the benefits that are out there for consumers, but we can also address and anticipate possible risks that might exist when it comes to data security, for instance, and privacy in particular.

I’ve heard some concern that the incoming administration may roll back some data privacy and security precedents the FTC has put in place in the past several years. What do you see in the future?

My expectation is that the core work of the Federal Trade Commission when it comes to issues like data security are going to continue. Historically, our data security program actually began under Chairman Tim Muris, who was a Republican. That work has continued and expanded since then throughout the tenure of all of the heads of the FTC that have followed up until my time, and my expectation is that’s to continue.

I also believe that consumers have made very clear that they care very deeply about these issues — they care about privacy, they care about protecting their personal information, and I think that’s something the agency will continue to pay attention to. These are areas that we as an agency have been doing so much work in and have so much expertise in, so my view is that it will be continuing going forward.