The mobile unit has an equipment problem, too. Like most government agencies, the FTC issues Blackberries to key officials. Poss, the unit's director, has one. The Blackberry dominated when Al Gore ran for president, but today it's barely an also-ran with just 12 percent of the smartphone market. That's not a problem if you only use your Blackberry for texts, emails and calls. But it's a problem if, like Poss, your job is to keep track of what's happening in the smartphone market. Most consumers use Androids or iPhones, and most of the apps written for them are not available on the Blackberry.
If Poss wants to learn what's going on in the 88 percent of the smartphone market that her Blackberry cannot access, she would need to leave her office and go to one of the FTC labs, where she can use or check out an iPhone or Android. It's a clunky setup, so she resorts to a familiar workaround: She uses her personal smartphones. She has an iPhone as well as an Android.
A moment after she mentioned this in an interview, she added, "I probably shouldn't be saying that."
FTC officials are reluctant to talk about their lack of funding, partly because public whining, especially during hard economic times, is infrequently rewarded. It's also politically unwise. A vocal portion of the electorate believes the government and its regulatory arms have too much money and power as it is. Additionally, the FTC is trying to keep the tech industry honest by hinting that the feds are watching everything. It does not help if Silicon Valley realizes the FTC possesses just a handful of iPhones and Androids that are kept under lock and key in the basement.
The interview with Poss was conducted in an office on the third floor of the FTC's headquarters, with an FTC spokeswoman on hand. When Poss was asked whether it wouldn't make sense for the director of the Mobile Technology Unit to have a government-issued iPhone or Android, the spokeswoman, Claudia Farrell, interceded.
"He's trying to get you to bitch, Patti. Don't do it."
Poss, a lawyer who has worked at the FTC for more than 12 years, began to look uncomfortable, as though she was in the witness box, unsure what she was supposed to say. She made amends by noting she can use her office computer to look at the smartphone app descriptions posted on the websites where they are sold. Then she reversed herself.
"Actually, you can't," Poss said. "We have some restrictions on the sites we can visit on government computers."
She hesitantly mentioned that Apple's app store is among the sites blocked by the FTC's security system. If she wants to look at the most popular websites for mobile apps, she has to go to a basement lab.
Farrell joined the conversation again.
"You're not going to make this a gut-wrenching story about how Patti has to leave the confines of her office to do her work?"