New Service Wants to Help IoT Devices Be More Transparent

Taking an approach akin to printing nutritional facts on packaged foods, Privacynq wants to help manufacturers build digital trust in their IoT products.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Sep 23, 2015

As far as Roy Smith is concerned, manufacturers of Internet of Things devices for consumers are doing a miserable job of clearly communicating what personal data their devices collect and, more importantly, how they use that information. But he also thinks this marks a business opportunity.

This week, Smith launched Privacynq, a service that aims to explain a product's data-privacy policy in plain, concise English, rather than using longwinded legalese. This, he posits, will also help device manufacturers of IoT devices, such as fitness bands and Internet-connected home-security systems, to earn consumers' trust and, therefore, business.

The desktop-based version of a device overview
"The average consumer is more and more concerned or interested in what is going on" with their personal data, Smith says. "We think privacy and security will be marketing differentiators [for makers of IoT devices] in the near future."

Whether or not that happens, manufacturers have other motivations for wanting to make consumers feel comfortable with their privacy policies and assuring them that their personal information and privacy remain secure. In January 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) expressed its concern that IoT devices do a poor job of protecting consumer data and safeguarding civil liberties, raising the specter of possible regulation. (The agency also issued a report detailing approaches that device manufacturers should be taking to safeguard data and privacy.)

Smith designed Privacynq as an easy-to-navigate interface—in desktop-, tablet- and smartphone-specific formats—that manufacturers can use to provide consumers with a clear description of its data-security and privacy practices. Smith's vision is that as manufacturers begin using Privacynq, consumers will grow to rely on it as a way to quickly reference the privacy policies for each IoT product they purchase.

"We created a solution that would make this a drop-in for manufacturers," Smith explains. "They will print the Privacynq overview of the product's data-collection practices on the product packaging." Consumers will also be able to access that same overview on their smartphone or home computer, he notes, via Privacynq's website. As a manufacturer makes changes to its policies, these will be reflected on the electronic version of the Privacynq overview, along with the date they were updated.

The consumer interface—a mock-up of which is available here—starts with an overview of a given stock-keeping unit (SKU). It then lays out the feature's consumer benefits. (The Privacynq website also includes a number of listings featuring actual products, such as Nest and Fitbit, but these are mock-ups based on publicly available information. Privacynq has not yet worked with these companies.) The next section gives a brief synopsis of what types of data the device collects, as well as how it is collected (for example, via an integrated camera or microphone, or by accessing a user's calendar through an app). This section also conveys the manufacturers' data-storage policy for each type of data collected.

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