What I learned from launching a consumer trustmark for IoT

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Throughout 2018, we developed the Trustable Technology Mark, a consumer trustmark for IoT, that our non-profit ThingsCon administers. As the project lead on this Trustmark, I spent countless hours in discussions and meetings, at workshops and conferences, and doing research about other relevant consumer labels, trustmarks and certifications that might offer us some useful paths forward. I thought it might be interesting to share what I’ve learned along the way.

(Please note that this is also the reason this blog post appears first on my website; it’s because if there’s anything problematic here, it’s my fault and doesn’t reflect ThingsCon positions.)

1) The label is the least important thing

Launching a Trustmark is not about the label but about everything else. I’ve encountered probably dozens of cool label concepts, like “nutritional” labels for tech, “fair trade” style privacy labels, and many more. While there were many really neat approaches, the challenges lie elsewhere entirely. Concretely, the main challenges I see are the following:

  • What goes into the label, i.e. where and how do you source the data? (Sources)
  • Who analyzes the data and decides? (Governance)
  • Who benefits from the Trustmark? (Stakeholders and possible conflicts of interest)
  • How to get to traction? (Reach & relevance)

We’ve solved some of these challenges, but not all. Our data sourcing has been working well. We’re doing well with our stakeholders and possible conflicts of interest (nobody gets paid, we don’t charge for applications/licenses, and it’s all open sourced: In other words, no conflicts of interest and very transparent stakeholders, but this raises sustainability challenges). We don’t yet have robust governance structures, need a bigger pool of experts for reviews, and haven’t built the reach and relevance yet that we’ll need eventually if this is to be a long term success.

2) Sometimes you need to re-invent the wheel

Going into the project, I naively thought there must be existing models we could just adapt. But turns out, new problem spaces don’t always work that way. The nature of Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices meant we faced a set of fairly new and unique challenges, and nobody had solved this issue. (For example, how to deal with ongoing software updates that could change the nature of a device multiple times without introducing a verification mechanism like reverse engineering that would be too cost intensive to be realistic.)

So we had to go back to the drawing board, and came out with a solution that I would say is far from perfect but better than anything else I’ve seen to date: Our human experts review applications that are based on information provided by the manufacturer/maker of the product, and this information is based on a fairly extensive & holistic questionnaire that includes aspects from feature level to general business practices to guarantees that the company makes on the record by using our Trustmark.

Based on that, our Trustmark offers a carrot; we leave it to others to be the stick.

That said, we did learn a lot from the good folks at the Open Source Hardware Association. (Thanks, OSHWA!)

3) Collaborate where possible

We tried to collaborate as closely as possible with a number of friendly organizations (shout-out to Better IoT & Consumers International!) but also had to concede that in a project as fast moving and iterative it’s tough to coordinate as closely as we would have liked to have. That’s on us — by which I mean, it’s mostly on me personally, and I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job aligning this even better.

For example, while I did manage to have regular backchannel exchanges with collaborators, more formal partnerships are a whole different beast. I had less than a year to get this out the door, so anything involving formalizing was tricky. I was all the happier that a bunch of the partners in the Network of Centres and some other academic organizations decided to take the leap and set up lightweight partnerships with us. This allows a global footprint with partners in Brazil, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Turkey, India and China. Thank you!

4) Take a stand

One of the most important take aways for me, however, was this: You can’t please everyone, or solve every problem.

For every aspect we would include, we’d exclude a dozen others. Every method (assessment, enforcement, etc.) used means another not used. Certification or license? Carrot or stick? Third party verification or rely on provided data? Incorporate life cycle analysis or focus on privacy? Include cloud service providers for IoT, or autonomous vehicles, or drones? These are just a tiny, tiny fraction of the set of questions we needed to decide. In the end, I believe that in order to have a chance at succeeding means cutting out many if not most aspects in order to have as clear a focus as possible.

And it means making a stand: Choose the problem space, and your approach to solving it, so you can be proud of it and stand behind it.

For the Trustable Technology Mark that meant: We prioritized a certain purity of mission over watering down our criteria, while choosing pragmatic processes and mechanisms over those we thought would be more robust but unrealistic. In the words of our slide deck, the Trustmark should hard to earn, but easy to document. That way we figured we could find those gems of products that try out truly novel approaches that are more respectful of consumers rights than the broad majority of the field.

Is this for everyone, or for everything? Certainly not. But that’s ok: We can stand behind it. And should we learn we’re wrong about something then we’ll know we tried our best, and can own those mistakes, too. We’ve planted a flag, a goal post that we hope will shift the conversation by setting a higher goal than most others.

It’s an ongoing project

The Trustable Technology Mark is a project under active development, and we’ll be happy sharing our learnings as things develop. In the meantime, I hope this has been helpful.

If you’ve got anything to share, please send it to me personally (peter@thewavingcat.com) or to trustabletech@thingscon.org.

The Trustable Technology Mark was developed under the ThingsCon umbrella with support from the Mozilla Foundation.

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