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The Privacy Advisor | Consumer Reports launches digital lab to rate on privacy, inform policy Related reading: The Privacy Advisor Podcast: 'Right To Be Forgotten' hits pop culture

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For most, when the name "Consumer Reports" comes to mind, you might think of the last time you were in the market for a dishwasher and wanted to know how the brand you were eyeing stacked up against the competition. Would it clean the dishes efficiently? How loud would it be? No one wants the dishwasher that sounds like an indoor construction site. Or, maybe you've sought the longstanding nonprofit's advice during a Google search on bike helmets. Which one will keep that head of yours best protected out on the road? But consumers looking for advice and insight on products might soon start turning to the agency for something more than product performance and physical safety: digital safety. 

Consumer Reports is in the process now of hiring a team for its newly announced Digital Lab, comprising engineers, technologists and investigative journalists testing products for privacy and security.  

"The definition of safety is evolving, it’s not only about the risk of injury it’s also about the risk of injury it’s also about the potential risks, the potential threats posed to your personal data," said David Butler of Consumer Reports. "And with connected products across every category of product we rate, Consumer Reports is making an unprecedented commitment to prioritize privacy and security and testing rating evaluating products for privacy and safety."

While the Digital Lab is quite literally a lab in the physical sense, its creation will also serve as a hub for the proliferation of ideas and data to inform Consumer Reports' policy work and investigative journalism in an aim to hold both private companies and the U.S. government to higher standards on privacy and security, Butler said. The agency already had engineers and journalists rating products on privacy and security elements, in 2017 announcing it had launched an open source "digital standard," encouraging companies to address digital privacy and security risks, as well as giving companies optics on the elements of the standard Consumer Reports would use to measure and rate products. Now, the lab aims to expand that work. 

"The ultimate goal is to apply these privacy and security standards to products around every product category that Consumer Reports currently tests and rates, and even categories that haven’t yet been invented," Butler said. "While we’ve already applied digital product to smart TVs and routers, looking ahead, we plan to put password managers through their paces and examine a wide variety of other products, including a whole host of apps and even automobiles."

In August, Consumer Reports announced it had hired Ben Moskowitz, a technologist, to direct the Digital Lab. He comes to Consumer Reports from Mozilla, where he worked as director of development strategy. 

"We're trying to figure out how we can take the great capabilities we’ve got here and see how they can force multiply each other," Moskowitz said. "How can we do deeper investigations, revaluate the practices of tech companies, find new ways of users taking control over their data? Right now, most of what we’re doing is testing and reporting: We look at products and say, 'Buy this one, it’s a better value.' In the future, through the digital standard, we want data privacy and security quality of the product to be part of the rating. If you look at IoT, every product we rate is going to be a connected device. It's no longer 'This is the best toaster.' It the toaster connects to the internet, is it going to become compromised? Is it going to become part of the botnet?" 

Justin Brookman is director of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports. He said the agency's policy work is important because keeping consumers safe can't be a burden placed squarely on consumers themselves. Of course it's important to do your homework, but it's the role of policymakers, companies and governments to do the work that ultimately codifies that safety. Brookman said the Digital Lab will play a significant role in informing that work. 

"It’s not just relying on self-help,"he said. "Empowering [consumers] is important, but none of us have the bandwidth to tweak 40 settings for every company we deal with, or to understand the attributes of every device." 

Mostkowitz shares Brookman's sentiment that the onus cannot be solely on the consumer to make the right choices. 

"We want consumers to have information so they can choose products best for them," he said. "That might not always be possible, either because the marketplace isn’t transparent, or maybe it is but there aren’t really meaningful choices." It's then that the agency's policy work kicks in, to "engage with supply. ... Sometimes it's consensual, sometimes we put the pressure on. When that’s not possible, we work with rulemakers."

Brookman adds that even consumers doing their due diligence and reading a product review may not know how to apply that to their actions.

"You can see a rating and may not understand. 'What does that mean: Ford got a 67, what does that mean exactly?' Well they can sell [your data] to a data broker, share it with third parties. Even if there is a score, you might not understand it or don’t want the responsibility. Or maybe you think it’s wrong people should pay with their data, or privacy."

And that's where policy, and the lab's findings to inform that policy, plays an important role, he said. 

"So when we do test products we see X, Y and Z is happening, and that can inform what we tell people, but it also can inform what we tell the Federal Trade Commission or what we tell Congress or what we tell California," he said. He pointed to Consumer Reports' work on Facebook's use of facial recognition, resulting in the agency filing a complaint this year to the FTC alleging the practice constitutes "deception" and violates Section 5 of the FTC Act.  

It's that kind of collaboration between Consumer Reports' investigative and policy work he sees the lab bolstering.

"The testing side is really the most important thing to make sure we have the skills and relationship for all the things we look at. I think they can feed off of each other," he said. "I’ll be working on testing some, and then I’ll hopefully have more resources to back up what I’m arguing for from policy makers." 

Moskowitz envisions similar outcomes. While he notes it's early days — he's been on the job less than a month and the lab is just standing up — he said in the near term, the agency is aiming to help enforce new privacy laws, namely, the California Consumer Privacy Act. 

"We want to make sure that that goes into effect in January in fact," he said. "That will set stage for federal privacy law that we think is very likely to come out. We want to influence that, make sure it’s robust it works and is enforced in the right ways." 

Both Moscowitz and Brookman say the time is ripe for this kind of work, noting growing consumer mistrust over what's happening to their data. 

"There's a general sense of anxiety and lack of agency," Brookman said of the consumer climate. "People feel like their information is being collected, and it feels adversarial, like it’s not being done for them but more to them -- without regard for their interest. People want to see more accountability and changes and have the defaults work for them." 

Moscowitz said while consumer awareness is certainly rising, it's the rate of change that makes this work especially important. 

"I was just looking at the Consumer Reports archives, just in a room in the building where every magazine every published, every rating ever published is, looking back 12 years ago. We were rating digital cameras; the iPhone is out. Or, five years ago, seeing the first story going, 'Hey, interesting, here’s what happens when you sign up and use Facebook.' If you just think about the pace of change, you’re talking about five-, 10-year ramp ups for things hundreds of thousands of people are using. There's not time to talk about expectations or norms. I think consumer awareness is catching up and people are paying more attention. But even if they weren’t, the rules and trajectory of the digital economy are being set now." 

And it's those rules Consumer Reports aims to impact. 

Photo by Carl GARTMAN on Unsplash

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