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In light of ‘smart’ devices, feds call for privacy bill

Federal regulators are concerned about how the billions of “smart” bracelets, cars, thermostats and other devices are creating new avenues to threaten people’s privacy. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday unveiled a 71-page report calling for new legislation to help it crack down on companies who may abuse or fail to protect people’s data.

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"Such legislation should be flexible and technology-neutral, while also providing clear rules of the road for companies about such issues as how to provide choices to consumers about data collection and use practices,” the FTC said in its report.

The bill should not be specific to the rise of connected devices on the so-called “Internet of Things,” the FTC said, but should instead focus on a “broad-based” privacy law.

While devices that track and analyze people’s habits can have enormous benefits to the way they live, they can also put all that information at risk. Companies are able to collect more information than consumers often realize, the FTC noted, and people may be concerned about how that data is used — such as whether it is sold to advertisers — and how well it is protected.

The report is an outgrowth of a 2013 workshop the FTC hosted on the rise of connected devices, which are expected to reach 50 billion worldwide in the next five years.

Congress has so far appeared to have little appetite for a new broad privacy law, even in the wake of massive hacks from Target to Sony.

Yet Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the head of the Senate Commerce Committee, late on Monday announced a committee hearing on the “Internet of Things,” scheduled for Feb. 11.

Absent congressional action, the FTC said that developers should focus on minimizing the amount of data the collect, be clear about what they are using it for and then take steps to safeguard it.

“My advice would be keep both security and privacy top of mind,” Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said at the State of the Net conference on Tuesday morning.

The agency will also continue to rely on the legal powers it currently has to enforce laws currently on the books, and take action against companies that abuse the data they possess.