What I learned from launching a consumer trustmark for IoT


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 ( or to

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

Monthnotes for November 2018


This month: Trustable Technology Mark, ThingsCon Rotterdam, a progressive European digital agenda.

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat. I’m currently doing the planning for Q2 2019.

Trustable Technology Mark

ThingsCon’s trustmark for IoT, the Trustable Technology Mark now has a website. We’ll be soft-launching it with a small invite-only group of launch partners next week at ThingsCon Rotterdam. Over on I wrote up some pre-launch notes on where we stand. Can’t wait!

ThingsCon Rotterdam

ThingsCon is turning 5! This thought still blows my mind. We’ll be celebrating at ThingsCon Rotterdam (also with a new website) where we’ll also be launching the Trustmark (as mentioned above). This week is for tying up all the loose ends so that we can then open applications to the public.

A Progressive European Digital Agenda

Last month I mentioned that I was humbled (and delighted!) to be part of a Digital Rights Cities Coalition at the invitation of fellow Mozilla Fellow Meghan McDermott (see her Mozilla Fellows profile here). This is one of several threads where I’m trying to extend the thinking and principles behind the Trustable Technology Mark beyond the consumer space, notably into policy—with a focus on smart city policy.

Besides the Digital Rights Cities Coalition and some upcoming work in NYC around similar issues, I was kindly invited by the Foundation for Progressive European Studies (FEPS) to help outline the scope of a progressive European digital agenda. I was more than a little happy to see that this conversation will continue moving forward, and hope I can contribute some value to it. Personally I see smart cities as a focal point of many threads of emerging tech, policy, and the way we define democratic participation in the urban space.

What’s next?

Trips to Rotterdam (ThingsCon & Trustmark), NYC (smart cities), Oslo (smart cities & digital agenda).

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat. I’m currently doing the planning for Q2 2019.

Yours truly, P.

Trust Indicators for Emerging Technologies


For the Trustable Technology Mark, we identified 5 dimensions that indicate trustworthiness. Let’s call them trust indicators:

  • Privacy & Data Practices: Does it respect users’ privacy and protect their data rights?
  • Transparency: Is it clear to users what the device and the underlying services do and are capable of doing?
  • Security: Is the device secure and safe to use? Are there safeguards against data leaks and the like?
  • Stability: How long a life cycle can users expect from the device, and how robust are the underlying services? Will it continue to work if the company gets acquired, goes belly-up, or stops maintenance?
  • Openness: Is it built on open source or around open data, and/or contributes to open source or open data? (Note: We treat Openness not as a requirement for consumer IoT but as an enabler of trustworthiness.)

Now these 5 trust indicators—and the questions we use in the Trustable Technology Mark to assess them—are designed for the context of consumer products. Think smart home devices, fitness trackers, connected speakers or light bulbs. They work pretty well for that context.

Over the last few months, it has become clear that there’s demand for similar trust indicators for areas other than consumer products like smart cities, artificial intelligence, and other areas of emerging technology.

I’ve been invited to a number of workshops and meetings exploring those areas, often in the context of policy making. So I want to share some early thoughts on how we might be able to translate these trust indicators from a consumer product context to these other areas. Please note that the devil is in the detail: This is early stage thinking, and the real work begins at the stage where the assessment questions and mechanisms are defined.

The main difference between consumer context and publicly deployed technology—infrastructure!—means that we need to focus even most strongly on safeguards, inclusion, and resilience. If consumer goods stop working, there’s real damage, like lost income and the like, but in the bigger picture, failing consumer goods are mostly a quality of life issue; and in the case of consumer IoT space, mostly for the affluent. (Meaning that if we’re talking about failure to operate rather than data leaks, the damage has a high likelihood of being relatively harmless.)

For publicly deployed infrastructure, we are looking at a very different picture with vastly different threat models and potential damage. Infrastructure that not everybody can rely on—equally, and all the time—would not just be annoying, it might be critical.

After dozens of conversations with people in this space, and based on the research I’ve been doing both for the Trustable Technology Mark and my other work with both ThingsCon and The Waving Cat, here’s a snapshot of my current thinking. This is explicitly intended to start a debate that can inform policy decisions for a wide range of areas where emerging technologies might play a role:

  • Privacy & Data Practices: Privacy and good data protection practices are as essential in public space as in the consumer space, even though the implications and tradeoffs might be different ones.
  • Transparency & Accountability: Transparency is maybe even more relevant in this context, and I propose adding Accountability as an equally important aspect. This holds especially true where commercial enterprises install and possibly maintain large scale networked public infrastructure, like in the context of smart cities.
  • Security: Just as important, if not more so.
  • Resilience: Especially for smart cities (but I imagine the same holds true for other areas), we should optimize for Resilience. Smart city systems need to work, even if parts fail. Decentralization, openness, interoperability and participatory processes are all strategies that can increase Resilience.
  • Openness: Unlike in the consumer space, I consider openness (open source, open data, open access) essential in networked public infrastructure—especially smart city technology. This is also a foundational building block for civic tech initiatives to be effective.

There are inherent conflicts and tradeoffs between these trust indicators. But **if we take them as guiding principles to discuss concrete issues in their real contexts, I believe they can be a solid starting point. **

I’ll keep thinking about this, and might adjust this over time. In the meantime, I’m keen to hear what you think. If you have thoughts to share, drop me a line or hit me up on Twitter.

Monthnotes for August 2018


Lots of ThingsCon & Trustable Tech goodness this month.

The State of Responsible IoT 2018

Our (now-)annual ThingsCon report The State of Responsible IoT is out.

It’s an annual collection of essays by experts from the ThingsCon community. With the Riot Report 2018 we want to investigate the current state of responsible IoT. In this report we explore observations, questions, concerns and hopes from practitioners and researchers alike. The authors share the challenges and opportunities they perceive right now for the development of an IoT that serves us all, based on their experiences in the field. The report presents a variety of differing opinions and experiences across the technological, regional, social, philosophical domains the IoT touches upon.

Our contributors are a veritable all-star lineup from around the globe including Christian Villum, David Li, Dries de Roeck, Prof. Dr. Eduardo Magrani, Prof. Dr. Elisa Giaccardi, Ester Fritsch, Prof. Dr. Gaia Scagnetti, Holly Robbins, Iohanna Nicenboim, Prof. Dr. Irina Shklovski, Iskander Smit, Dr. James Pierce, Dr. Laura James, Luca van der Heide, Maya Indira Ganesh, Peter Bihr, Dr. Rachel Douglas-Jones, Dr. Ronaldo Lemos, Prof. Dr. Seyram Avle, Prof. Dr. Silvia Lindtner, and Simon Höher.

Trustable Technology mark

With lots of priceless input from Jason Schultz, the kind help from our partner test companies, and based on feedback from across the ThingsCon network, we’ve managed to hugely streamline the application process for ThingsCon’s Trustable Tech mark—while also making it a lot more robust by putting human experts in the loop.

Current overview presentation from earlier this week:

Media, etc.

Brand Eins interviewed me about IoT and how it challenges our notion of ownership and trust. Details in my blog post here. The text is now available for free (no more paywall).

What’s next?

Trips to Torino for a ThingsCon & Trustmark workshop & to London for Mozfest.

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat.

Have a great September.

Yours truly, P.

New ThingsCon Report: The State of Responsible IoT 2018


State of Responsible IoT 2018 header

A quick cross-post from the ThingsCon blog about a report we’ve been working on and that we just pushed online: The State of Responsible IoT 2018

A lot has happened since we published the first ThingsCon State of Responsible IoT report in 2017: Responsibility and ethics in tech have begun to enter mainstream conversations, and these conversations are having an effect. The media, tech companies, and policy makers all are rethinking the effect of technology on society.

The lines between the Internet of Things (IoT), algorithmic decision-making, Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML), and data-driven services are all ever-more blurry. We can’t discuss one without considering the others. That’s not a bad thing, it just adds complexity. The 21st century one for black and white thinking: It’s messy, complex, quickly evolving, and a time where simple answers won’t do.

It is all the more important to consider the implications, to make sure that all the new data-driven systems we’ll see deployed across our physical and digital environments work well—not just for the users but for all who are impacted.

Things have evolved and matured in big strides since our last State of Responsible IoT. This year’s report reflects that evolution, as well as the enormous breadth and depth of the debate. We couldn’t be happier with the result.

Some background as well as all the relevant links are available at or using the short URL The publication is available on Medium and as a PDF export.

This text is meant for sharing. The report is published by ThingsCon e.V. and licensed under Creative Commons (attribution/non-commercial/share-alike: CC BY-NC-SA). Images are provided by the author and used with permission. All rights lie with the individual authors. Please reference the author(s) when referencing any part of this report.

“The world doesn’t know where it wants to go”


Image: Compass by Valentin Antonucci (Unsplash) Image: Compass by Valentin Antonucci (Unsplash)

One of the joys of my working at the intersection of emerging tech and its impact is that I get to discuss things that are by definition cutting edge with people from entirely different backgrounds—like recently with my dad. He’s 77 years old and has a background in business, not tech.

We chatted about IoT, and voice-enabled connected devices, and the tradeoffs they bring between convenience and privacy. How significant chunks of the internet of things are optimized for costs at the expense of privacy and security. How IoT is, by and large, a network of black boxes.

When I tried to explain why I think we need a trustmark for IoT (which I’m building with ThingsCon and as a Mozilla fellow)—especially regarding voice-enabled IoT—he listened intently, thought about it for a moment, and then said:

“We’re at a point in time where the world doesn’t know where it wants to go.”

And somehow that exactly sums it up, ever so much more eloquently than I could have phrased it.

Only I’m thinking: Even though I can’t tell where the world should be going, I think I know where to plant our first step—and that is, towards a more transparent and trustworthy IoT. I hope the trustmark can be our compass.