Jessica Rich spent more than two and a half decades battling deceptive and fraudulent business practices at the Federal Trade Commission, most recently as the agency's director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. She left the FTC in February, and now brings her expertise to Consumer Reports as vice president of consumer policy and mobilization. CR's editors spoke with her recently about what she learned while fighting to protect consumer interests from within government, and where she sees fresh opportunities for Consumer Reports to continue to empower consumers in a world where their personal data is an increasingly tempting target.

Q. How Did You Get Into Public Service?

I'm a Washington, D.C., native—my father was a reporter for the Washington Post, and my mother ran a nonprofit—so I was always very aware of the policy environment and public debates when I was growing up. After I went to law school, I worked in law firms for a while. But I was looking for something where I could have more connection to people. And I found that at the FTC.

Q. You Worked at the FTC for 26 Years. How Did the Agency—and Your Role in It—Change in That Time?

When I started, we were mostly doing straightforward fraud and false advertising cases—there was no privacy work to speak of. I belonged to a fraud division bringing cases against scam artists who sold worthless gemstones to older consumers over the phone. The advent of the internet changed everything, and the FTC has been on a technology highway ever since. In the late 1990s, I led efforts to create the FTC's privacy program, which now addresses such issues as TVs that snoop on their owners' viewing habits, data breaches harming millions of consumers, and IP cameras and routers that are vulnerable to hackers. And as bureau director, many of my efforts dealt with tech issues, such as phony health apps, fraud on Kickstarter, and unauthorized mobile payments.

Q. What Do You Think Are Some of the Most Pressing Issues Facing Consumers Today?

One of my primary concerns is the credibility of information in the marketplace. There’s a lot of blurring of advertising and content, and advertising formats that look like journalism.

It's very difficult for consumers to distinguish credible sources from sources that are bought and paid for through advertising dollars.

The incredible explosion of technology is also a huge issue. It means there are lots of new platforms where marketing claims are made. And it also means data is collected about consumers everywhere they go, from all sorts of devices.

When you're online, websites and many companies in the background know what you're searching for, reading, and watching. And now we're facing the internet of things, where products such as your car and your thermostat are collecting data all the time.

Q. Giving Up Privacy Can Often Be Seen as the Cost of Doing Business for Consumers in the Digital World. Why Should They Be Concerned?

The information that's collected can include the medicines you take, your political and religious interests—even your bank account number. And it can wind up in the hands of your insurance company, landlord, or employer. Even worse, it can be sold to wrongdoers. The FTC brought several cases involving the sale of bank account numbers to scam artists who used it to debit consumers' accounts.

Q. What Is Consumer Reports' Role in This Issue?

Consumers say they care about whether companies protect their privacy, but they can't really make informed choices about which ones do a better job. It's too complex.

That's why Consumer Reports is developing a Digital Standard to evaluate privacy and security protections. It addresses such questions as whether a company provides security against hackers, whether it's being straight with consumers about the data it's collecting, and whether consumers are given choices about how their data is used.

Companies can use the standard to build better products and services. But ultimately, we want to test and rate products such as routers, security cameras, health apps, and connected cars for privacy and security. This will take a lot of time and work, but it could be a game-changer.

One of the great appeals of Consumer Reports is that by doing testing, ratings, and reviews, we give consumers clear information on products and services, and empower them to vote with their feet on issues they care about.

What I've seen from working on this for two decades is that what drives privacy action the most is a sense that it matters to a brand. If companies believe their customers care about privacy, they'll address it.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the September 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.