Policy

In its battle with Big Tech, the CFPB is building an army of engineers

The bureau is hiring dozens of technologists as its industry probes escalate.

CFPB office

The CFPB is hiring 25 technologists over the next year to help its staff probe leads into misconduct at fintech companies.

Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

One of Rohit Chopra’s first moves as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was launching a major investigation into Big Tech payment platforms. Soon after, it put out a call to tech whistleblowers, asking them to report misconduct at fintech companies.

Now, the CFPB says it’s hiring 25 technologists over the next year to help its staff of mainly economists and lawyers actually probe these new leads. The move is as sure a sign as any that the bureau’s ongoing efforts to investigate and hold tech companies accountable for financial wrongdoing are only accelerating.

Leading the recruiting push is Erie Meyer, a longtime Chopra aide and the first chief technologist of the CFPB. Meyer previously co-founded the United States Digital Service, the technical team that launched under President Obama after the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov.

Like USDS, the new tech team at CFPB will recruit technologists from both the private sector and other parts of government for two-year tours of duty. But unlike USDS and its offshoots at the Department of Defense and other agencies, the goal of this team isn’t to fix broken government tech, Meyer told Protocol. Instead, it’s to help the government cut through tech companies’ smoke screens.

“The bureau's got really, really smart attorneys ... but it's a huge difference when you go from a more homogenous team to an interdisciplinary team,” Meyer said. “What does a meeting with a firm we're looking at look like when we have technical folks in the room who can get to the bottom of it [when they say], ‘Oh, that was just a tech issue,’ or ‘We’re pretty sure that's not happening’ or ‘Sorry, we can't pull information?’”

The need for in-house technical expertise across government is urgent, said Jen Pahlka, former U.S. deputy chief technology officer and founder of Code for America. “So many of the threats consumers face come at them through digital channels and are conducted by actors with great digital sophistication,” she said. “We need great digital talent in these agencies to combat these threats and keep people safe.” Pahlka noted that CFPB in particular has “a great track record of hiring good tech talent and giving them a seat at the table.”

The CFPB has been piloting this technical team since February with a group of seven data scientists. Now, as that team expands, it’s looking for people with expertise in machine learning, AI, UX design, product management and web development. While Meyer can’t point to any specific investigations the team will be working on, she said it will focus on bias and manipulation that are enabled by dark patterns, black box algorithms and “everything that the director has affirmatively talked about publicly.”

We need great digital talent in these agencies to combat these threats and keep people safe.

Chopra, a former FTC commissioner, has been an outspoken tech critic for years and even opposed the FTC’s $5 billion Facebook fine in 2019 over concerns that it didn’t go far enough to address the company’s privacy violations. “The proposed settlement let Facebook off the hook for unspecified violations and it gave Facebook a legal shield of unusual breadth,” Chopra said in a recent speech at the University of Pennsylvania. “We need to learn from these lessons to think about not only how to halt recidivism, but also how to treat small and big firms equally when it comes to enforcement actions.”

During Chopra’s tenure, the CFPB has already ordered Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Square and PayPal to turn over internal documents about their payments products. CFPB has also warned banks that they need to be able to clearly explain why they are denying people credit, even if those decisions are made by an algorithm. The technologists who were part of the pilot team have been critical to that work, CFPB said.

The bureau’s interest in recruiting from the private sector, of course, presents the possibility that former employees could be investigating companies they’ve previously worked for or have financial ties to. Meyer said the bureau will be working with its ethics lawyers to prevent conflicts of interest. That includes conflicts of former employees who have a financial interest in those companies, as well as former employees with a grudge. “If somebody just wants to come be a crank, this is probably not the place for them,” Meyer said.

Recruiting engineers away from the tech industry is always an uphill battle for the U.S. government, which doesn’t exactly have the same eye-popping salaries and stock options to offer. And the federal government hasn’t always been a welcoming place for even techies who do make the leap, Pahlka said. “Too often, government hires technologists, but is so prescriptive and directive about what they can do that their impact is limited,” she said.

In Meyer’s case, she’s found that often agencies don’t know what to do with technical staffers at all. “My first day in a technical role at an agency, I remember somebody pulling me into their office and being like: So you're a non-lawyer. You're not going to fix my printer. What are you going to do?” she said. “People show up and then are sort of treated in a way that belies that the government doesn't realize what they have on hand.”

With this team, and under the leadership of a director so focused on the tech industry’s misdeeds, Meyer is hoping to break that pattern. “Your time will not be spent explaining why a technical person is important to have on the team,” she said, “but in fact, going full speed at holding firms accountable.”

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