Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Creating Trustmark Compounds from Trust Elements

Authored by: Kat Megas, Senior Pilot Programs Manager, NSTIC; and Ken Klingenstein, Internet2

Recently, there has been considerable discussion within the Identity Ecosystem Steering Group (IDESG) and elsewhere regarding trust frameworks, trustmarks, accreditation criteria, and identity ecosystems. “Traditional” trust frameworks and trustmark models – which were historically developed within monolithic schemes with a requirement for accountability to a single enterprise program – are starting to evolve to accommodate a broader extent of trust federation. Cross-federation trust is also emerging, not only as a natural evolution of trust frameworks, but also as a logical next step towards standardization of services and business drivers for participants. As we look to advance the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC), this sort of cross-federation trust is essential to a vibrant Identity Ecosystem. In an attempt to offer some structure to these evolving discussions, Internet2, as part of the work being conducted under its NSTIC pilot, recently presented a list of identified trust elements from existing identity ecosystem trust frameworks. These trust elements are organized into a “periodic table” which shows the subject (legal, privacy, operational, etc.) that each element addresses and indicates the layers that deal with them. Much as molecular compounds are created by joining individual atoms, Internet2 proposes that “trustmark compounds” can be built by combining several of these trust elements, and arranging them in concert with one another. Such compound trustmarks could be issued to identity ecosystem participants in recognition of specific ecosystem aspects such as accessibility, security, privacy, or compliance with regulations such as HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), or as defined by a community of interest. As a next step, the periodic table of trust elements was modified to include designation of the applicable NSTIC guiding principles, based on the set of requirements that were derived from the NSTIC guiding principles as published by NSTIC National Program Office (NPO). This annotation of the trust elements with the guiding principles can help categorize elements as they are newly discovered, as well as indicate which elements could be assigned to compound trustmarks that relate to the guiding principles. Complementary identity ecosystem “building blocks” are also being explored by a second pilot awarded by the NSTIC NPO to Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). As part of this pilot, GTRI is developing a trustmark meta-framework to facilitate effective scaling of interoperable identity solutions, defining a trustmark as “a rigorously defined, machine-readable statement of compliance with a specific set of technical or business/policy rules”.  This meta-framework aims to enable mutual recognition of like trustmarks/compound trustmarks across communities of interest and dynamic mapping between federations. Several examples of compound trustmarks exist today across the identity ecosystem. For example, research and education (R&E) federations assess applications for their “research and scholarship” characteristics, and issue trustmarks for sites that pass an audit. In turn, that trustmark is relied upon today, by hundreds of identity providers around the globe, to manage the release of attributes. Similar trustmarks exist within the National Identity Exchange Federation (NIEF), an operational identity federation that GTRI has developed and manages on behalf of the U.S. Justice and Law Enforcement community. Under another pilot funded by the NSTIC NPO, PRIVO is developing a “Minors Trust Framework” that will issue a trustmark to their framework members that satisfy Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Childrens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requirements for minor’s access to online content and services. Other compound trustmarks are just starting to be seen across the horizon. For example, an accessibility trustmark also seems quite feasible – many of the elements, such as the necessary schema and assessment tools, already exist. In terms of the relationship between compound trustmarks and existing trust frameworks, it is interesting to look at a few examples, such as InCommon, NIEF, and SafeBioPharma, which are primarily designed to provide a trust infrastructure for a specific community of interest (COI). It can be seen that there is some variation in the trust elements that these existing trust frameworks incorporate. This is not surprising, as the COI’s behind these trust frameworks have quite different business purposes (e.g. academia versus law enforcement) and they accordingly opt for differences in which elements they address. With the limited number of trustmarks available today – as well as the relatively early state of the market – the notion of them all being comprised of “modular” trustmark components is not likely. However, in the future, one can imagine that, as interoperable trustmarks are defined at a “reasonably” granular level, trust frameworks could incorporate them by reference instead of developing all the constituent requirements themselves. Thus, building trustmarks from these common elements would greatly enhance identity ecosystem interoperability by providing mutual recognition of those trustmarks that are common between different federations. It is important to note that this work is new and is evolving rapidly as the identity ecosystem landscape becomes clearer. The work is largely empirical, driven by the experiences of some of the NSTIC pilots that have long been active in the operational identity infrastructure space. We believe that ultimately the practical experience that was reflected in the table of trust elements may help the IDESG as it continues to work through the challenges of trust frameworks and trustmarks, and, as with previous NSTIC NPO blogs, the intent here is to invite additional inputs and development. There are still gaps in understanding the trust elements – much as there were in early versions of the Periodic Table of Elements. But while it took more than a hundred years to sort out the issues around chemical properties, we are confident that in a much shorter period, the identity ecosystem will evolve and fill in these trust element gaps! As noted above, we propose that this process of identifying trust elements and defining compound trustmarks will ultimately lead to the mutual recognition (and interoperability) between trust frameworks of trust aspects that are generic (such as alignment the NSTIC Guiding Principles), without the need for incorporation of sector-specific considerations and requirements.   This will enhance the ability for trust frameworks across different disciplines to interoperate and thus provide individual users with the ability to re-use credentials, which supports convenience and data minimization.   To achieve these goals, clear and effective definition of trustmarks will be required, so that individual users are fully aware of the consequences of their interactions in the ecosystem, while the incentives for adoption by identity, attribute, and service providers are all clearly articulated. All in all, we believe that this subject poses an interesting set of challenges and questions for all participants in the identity ecosystem, and we look forward to further dialog.


NSTIC should look at relevant literature on operationalizing the constructs of trust. Developing and Validating Trust Measures for e-Commerce: An Integrative Typology has a great validated instrument and The Effects of E-Government on Trust and Confidence in Government also tackles institutional-based trust.
Thanks Sal. I think that's more or less what we are suggesting here the idea being that IDESG slhoud look at existing trust frameworks and measure how closely they align with NSTIC, as well as each other. The purpose of this post is simply to suggest one methodology for doing so. If IDESG members are prompted by this blogpost to come up with something that all parties think is a better approach we'll be thrilled.

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Please be respectful when posting comments. We will post all comments without editing as long as they are appropriate for a public, family friendly website, are on topic and do not contain profanity, personal attacks, misleading or false information/accusations or promote specific commercial products, services or organizations. Comments that violate our comment policy or include links to non-government organizations/web pages will not be posted.