The Federal Trade Commission has hired privacy and technology expert Ashkan Soltani to serve as the commission’s chief technology officer. But security experts and former senior U.S. intelligence officials are questioning the FTC’s decision, given Soltani’s very public role as a consultant for The Washington Post, where he co-authored multiple articles based on classified documents stolen from the National Security Agency by former contractor Edward Snowden.
The FTC said in a press release that Soltani will join FTC in November and will replace Latanya Sweeney, who is returning to Harvard University, where she founded and directs the school’s Data Privacy Lab. His job will be to advise the commission on evolving technology and policy issues, a role similar to one he held previously at the FTC before leaving government to become an independent consultant.
But some experts are raising serious questions about the FTC’s hiring process and how somebody with such high-profile involvement in media stories that deliberately exposed classified government information could be appointed to a senior federal technology position. Soltani served as an in-house technology consultant to The Washington Post since 2013, working on the series of Pulitzer Prize-winning stories on the leaked NSA documents. He’s also been an outspoken proponent of privacy who, at times, has taken an adversarial approach to the government’s role in cyberspace.
“I’m not trying to demonize this fella, but he’s been working through criminally exposed documents and making decisions about making those documents public,” said Michael Hayden, a former NSA director who also served as CIA director from 2006 to 2009. In a telephone interview with FedScoop, Hayden said he wasn’t surprised by the lack of concern about Soltani’s participation in the Post’s Snowden stories. “I have no good answer for that.”
The FTC declined to comment, as did the NSA. The White House Office of Personnel Management, which has come under increased scrutiny since it was forced to cut ties with its main security clearance contractor after the company suffered a major cyberattack that exposed information on more than 25,000 federal employees, did not respond to FedScoop’s repeated requests for information on the FTC’s ability to hire Soltani given his role in consulting with the Post as it disclosed the Snowden documents.
Stewart Baker, a former NSA general counsel, said, while he’s not familiar with the role Soltani would play at the FTC, there are still problems with his appointment. “I don’t think anyone who justified or exploited Snowden’s breach of confidentiality obligations should be trusted to serve in government,” Baker said.
Bruce Rosen, a lawyer with the New Jersey-based law firm McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli P.C. who specializes in media law and First Amendment issues, said Soltani’s work with the Post is considered protected speech under the Constitution. “Although I understand why people may look askance at the arrangement with the Post vis-a-vis his return to government, his activities with the media were always constitutionally protected,” Rosen said. “He is not accused of stealing anything or aiding and abetting Snowden. He assisted a media entity in its analysis of the Snowden documents; there [is] case after case from the U.S. Supreme Court that puts that into an entirely different category.”
Soltani describes his research into the NSA’s surveillance programs on his website. “The documents leaked by Edward Snowden had a profound impact on how we understand the capacity of the government’s surveillance capabilities,” Soltani wrote. “My work focuses on understanding and describing the technical nature and details of these programs. I have released several comments arguing that it is necessary to have a technical expert advising those tasked with keeping this system in check.”
Soltani is scheduled to give a presentation Nov. 19 at the Strata+Hadoop World conference in Barcelona, Spain, on “how commercial tracking enables government surveillance.” According to the conference website, Soltani’s presentation will explore how “the dropping costs of bulk surveillance is aiding government eavesdropping, with a primary driver being how the NSA leverages data collected by commercial providers to collect information about innocent users worldwide.”
FedScoop reached out to Soltani for comment without success.
Soltani would not be the first prominent technologist whose efforts to assist the media with the stolen NSA documents have raised questions about conflict of interest. Last October, FedScoop profiled the work of noted cryptographer Bruce Schneier, who consulted for The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. on its trove of Snowden documents. Schneier, who at the time was employed as a senior executive with a global IT and telecommunications company that held U.S. government contracts, took his advocacy a step further by calling publicly for other government employees to leak classified information. Schneier announced his departure from his former employer six weeks after the apparent conflict of interest came to light.
A look at Ashkan Soltani’s Tweets on NSA and surveillance.
— ashkan soltani (@ashk4n) October 4, 2013