Privacy Corner: Meet Sara Collins of Public Knowledge

By Kathleen Murphy

Washington, D.C. (May 24, 2022) -- Sara Collins advocates for algorithmic accountability and consumer protection requirements related to housing, education, credit scoring and how ads are served.

Collins is senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group dedicated to promoting an open Internet. She specializes in data protection and consumer privacy.

“How do we make algorithms more accountable to people?” Collins asks. “How do we make sure that if there is bias or discrimination in them that it can be quickly found out and remedied?”

With regulators from Brussels to Washington set to issue artificial intelligence enforcement rules, companies that use AI are developing procedures to assure accountability of algorithms. In recent data protection cases against CafePress and Weight Watchers, the Federal Trade Commission required deletion of ill-gotten data or algorithms built on that data.

Such actions get a thumbs-up from Collins.

“I've actually been heartened by the continuing use of algorithmic disgorgement when data was collected when there was ill-gotten data,” Collins says. “I think these sorts of remedies and this sort of creativity is going to be useful in the coming years when we think about an enforcer that is protecting consumers and really disincentivizing companies from exploiting data [collected unlawfully].”

Collins joined Public Knowledge just before the pandemic accelerated in 2020, and previously was policy counsel on the Future of Privacy Forum’s Education & Youth Privacy team, specializing in higher education and young adult issues. Earlier, she was an investigative attorney in the enforcement unit at Federal Student Aid.

Collins helped investigate whether for-profit colleges were lying about job placement rates and average salaries. She studied job placement data for what didn’t line up.

Her sleuthing also meant wading through massive datasets to determine whether colleges were complying with federal student lending laws, which made her well-versed in the amount of data such institutions hold. Collins said she became a privacy professional because of working in higher ed, a sector with a lot of data and many requirements about privacy.

“And that’s sort of where my curiosity grew from,” Collins says. “It's sort of an intellectual curiosity about an aspect of my previous life that led me down this path.”

Collins graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center in 2014, where she was the symposium editor of the Journal of Gender and the Law. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in 2011.

Collins, who also is a registered lobbyist, is pushing for a national privacy law.

“We have not given up on privacy legislation. I try to stay on top of the Commerce Committee, and make sure that our concerns are being heard, that they know our priorities, that we’re not surprised by any news. So that’s really something I pay attention to quite a lot,” Collins says.

She and David Brody, managing attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, are co-chairs of the Commercial Data Practices Working Group, a component of the Civil Rights, Privacy, and Technology Roundtable.

Brody says Collins “has consistently proven instrumental not just in advocating for justice online, but in convening and mobilizing diverse stakeholders as well. She’s at the forefront of a new generation of tech policy leaders.”

Collins and Brody meet occasionally with FTC Consumer Protection Bureau Director Samuel Levine, whom Brody praises for understanding how data practices “can disproportionately impact communities of color. I appreciate that he has prioritized big picture consequences to ensure everyone gets a fair deal when using online services.”

And in fulfilling her role as a privacy champion, Collins urges “the FTC to take action to continually promote its consumer protection commitment.”

She relishes issue-based conversations, too. “I am always down for an email chat or Twitter DM. I like meeting people and learning more about what they’re doing and seeing if I can be helpful.”