How a lone grad student scooped the government—and what it means for your online privacy


If Poss wants to learn what’s going on in the 88 percent of the smart phone market that her BlackBerry cannot access, she would need to leave her office and go to one of the FTC labs, where she can use or check out an iPhone or Android. It’s a clunky setup, so she resorts to a familiar workaround: She uses her personal smart phones. She has an iPhone as well as an Android.

A moment after she mentioned this in an interview, she added, “I probably shouldn’t be saying that.”

FTC officials are reluctant to talk about their lack of funding, partly because public whining, especially during hard economic times, is infrequently rewarded. It’s also politically unwise. A vocal portion of the electorate believes the government and its regulatory arms have too much money and power as it is. Additionally, the FTC is trying to keep the tech industry honest by hinting that the feds are watching everything. It does not help if Silicon Valley realizes the FTC possesses just a handful of iPhones and Androids that are kept under lock and key in the basement.

The interview with Poss was conducted in an office on the third floor of the FTC’s headquarters, with an FTC spokeswoman on hand. When Poss was asked whether it wouldn’t make sense for the director of the Mobile Technology Unit to have a government-issued iPhone or Android, the spokeswoman, Claudia Farrell, interceded.

“He’s trying to get you to bitch, Patti. Don’t do it.”

Poss, a lawyer who has worked at the FTC for more than 12 years, began to look uncomfortable, as though she was in the witness box, unsure what she was supposed to say. She made amends by noting she can use her office computer to look at the smart phone app descriptions posted on the websites where they are sold. Then she reversed herself.

“Actually, you can’t,” Poss said. “We have some restrictions on the sites we can visit on government computers.”

She hesitantly mentioned that Apple’s app store is among the sites blocked by the FTC’s security system. If she wants to look at the most popular websites for mobile apps, she has to go to a basement lab.

Farrell joined the conversation again.

“You’re not going to make this a gut-wrenching story about how Patti has to leave the confines of her office to do her work?”

***

The FTC maintains an aura of secrecy about its internet testing labs in Washington. Their location is known but not much else. Officials would not talk about the equipment in the labs. Poss and Farrell refused to divulge the number of iPhones and Androids, though it appears to be not much more than a handful. “I don’t want to lead you to think we have an unlimited supply,” Poss acknowledged before being discouraged from acknowledging anything more.

It is hard for outsiders to know more, because the FTC refuses to let reporters visit the labs.

“We’re not going to show it to you, no way,” said David Vladeck, who directs the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and controls access to the labs.

It was pointed out that government agencies conducting far more secret operations—such as the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency—often allow journalists and other outsiders to visit classified facilities. The embedding program during the Iraq war gave reporters the chance to report on the planning and execution of secret military operations. The FTC’s labs would not seem to rival the technology displayed when journalists ride aboard nuclear-powered submarines, for instance.

Vladeck would not bend.

“We don’t trust anybody,” he said.

Current and former FTC officials say the labs are the size of suburban living rooms, with computers and accessories that do not look much different from what would be seen at a Kinko’s. “There’s nothing special there,” Soghoian said. “It looks like a computer room in a public library or middle school.”

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