The Federal Trade Commission is the nation's premier privacy enforcer. In the last few years, it has gone after Facebook, Google, Twitter and several other firms for violating consumers' privacy or deceiving them about the degree to which they protect that privacy. To outsiders, the FTC can seem highly secretive - it doesn't announce when it opens an investigation, only when an investigation ends in a settlement, a lawsuit, or a public closing letter.
As a result, although the newspapers and blogs may be filled with stories about a particular privacy firestorm, there is no way to know if the FTC is investigating a company. A year or two later, the FTC might announce a settlement, or, the FTC may quietly close an investigation, without ever tipping the public off to the fact that agency staff spent months investigating the company.
I spent a year working in the FTC's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection between 2009-2010, where I got to assist with several important privacy investigations. I saw first hand how frustrating it is for staff, when advocates, the media and Members of Congress demand that the FTC investigate a company or worse, criticize the FTC for doing nothing, when FTC staff are already several months into a complex investigation.
In order to try and help the general public better understand this topic, I recently sought and obtained (via FOIA) the official Matter Initiation Notices (pdf) filed by FTC staff when they formally opened investigations into all of the major privacy-related cases settled during the past few years.
As these documents show, even the fastest privacy case (Google Buzz) took a year from start to finish, while others, such as Facebook (2.3 years) and ControlScan (2.7 years) took far longer.
The take-home lesson from this data? The FTC's investigations are not quick. Given that there are just a couple dozen attorneys in the Division, this isn't surprising. If we want better (and faster) privacy enforcement, giving the FTC more money to hire additional staff would be a great first step.