Researchers urge FTC to adopt encrypted whistleblower channel for antitrust violations

Written by Nihal Krishan

A new cryptographic, open-source tool created by policy specialists at the Aspen Institute could significantly streamline and improve the Federal Trade Commission’s whistleblower antitrust complaint process.

Currently, the FTC uses a simpler and less secure email process for antitrust whistleblower complaints, which four Aspen Institute technology scholars want to revolutionize with a proposed new user interface. The researchers say the tool could improve the collection of whistleblower reports of companies’ anti-competitive behavior.

Gathering evidence of antitrust violations from employees is a key part of the FTC’s enforcement action. This evidence is crucial because the increasingly complex algorithms and code of commercial products make anti-competitive behavior harder to detect.

The Aspen researchers – Arjun Hassard, Justino Mora, Julia Uhr and Ritvik Vasudevan – are pushing the FTC to roll out their “intelligent and secure reporting channel”, according to their guidance note, to allow for better communication between staff of the FTC and whistleblowers using an open source platform.

“When we showed them, the FTC was very impressed with what we built,” said Arjun Hassard, lead author of Aspen’s guidance note and creator of the proposed whistleblower tool. FTC.

“They said the prototype made a lot of sense, so hopefully it will be used in FTC business in the future, especially since the FTC is underfunded and this tool is quite cheap to maintain. given that it’s built on open-source software that can easily be run in-house instead of a multi-million dollar contract,” Hassard said.

The FTC endorsed the creation of the tool by the four Aspen researchers, and offered general guidance on what the agency would need from such a tool before the tech researchers create the prototype. The Aspen researchers are optimistic that the Trade Commission will consider using the prototype as a guiding design and proof of concept for future whistleblower channels.

The prototype tool is built on top of GlobaLeaks, a well-known and trusted free open source software intended to enable secure and anonymous whistleblower initiatives that was launched in 2011.

According to Hassard, the purpose of the whistleblower tool is to educate and reduce the risk for civil participants, primarily workers and technology employees, to voluntarily report anti-competitive behavior.

“Since it’s open source, we’ll be taking feedback from hackers, privacy groups, and others to create stronger security and a much better sense of trust, which to our opinion, is innovative in the government space,” Hassard said. “It would be one of the first major informant fundamental frameworks that is open source.”

Whistleblowers and evidence from long, multi-year investigations play a key role in the FTC’s ability to successfully prosecute and regulate technology companies for anticompetitive practices and force behavioral change.

The Commerce Committee has spoken out over the past two years under Chairman Lina Khan to get creative with tackling the monopolistic practices of Big Tech companies by filing more antitrust lawsuits, blocking more mergers, revisiting previous agreements and being open to more complaints from whistleblowers.

Antitrust violations or anticompetitive behavior are harder to realize, detect and communicate when hidden in large amounts of software code or complicated algorithms, Hassard said, and it’s increasingly a problem. that the FTC wants to address and be more aggressive.

“There aren’t many examples of open source, incentive-based design like this working well in government right now and we want the good ideas in this space to not just be kept unnaturally in private space for personal enrichment, but rather for societal public good as well,” Hassard said.

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