FTC chief targets firms with vast databases

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She said the FTC will use its power to punish deceptive business practices to crack down on firms that fail to live up to their own promises about how they will use their customers' data. The agency will also use its authority to police unfair practices to go after companies that "substantially" harm consumers with inadequate data security practices.   

"Like a vigilant lifeguard, the FTC’s job is not to spoil anyone’s fun but to make sure that no one gets hurt," Ramirez said. "With big data, the FTC’s job is to get out of the way of innovation while making sure that consumer privacy is respected."

She renewed her call for Congress to enact baseline privacy protection legislation, a proposal endorsed by President Obama but that has gained little momentum on Capitol Hill.

She also said Congress should give the FTC civil penalty authority against companies that fail to take "reasonable" steps to protect information.

Ramirez said that by the end of the year, the agency will issue its report on "data brokers," firms that compile and sell detailed profiles of consumers.