Media Perspective: Privacy matters the most when building online relationships

Three technology stories stuck out for me last week: the PR pickle Phorm has landed in, the founder of Facebook becoming the world's youngest billionaire and (slightly more quietly) the beta launch of a new Yahoo! product called Fire Eagle.

They stuck out because of a common thread: privacy and people's attitudes to it.

Let's have a look at each one. Phorm are the latest people to promise more relevant, better-targeted advertising. They're going to do this through partnerships with internet service providers: watching the sites people visit and serving up more accurately targeted advertising through understanding that behaviour. They maintain that no-one's individual privacy will be violated by this process, that everything's anonymous and no particular individual's browsing habits will be trackable or recordable. Which is all fine and dandy and may well be true, it's just that, even so, lots of people are suspicious.

It just doesn't feel right to many people, it all seems a bit too Big Brother. And, while these suspicions might be entirely baseless, they're troubling enough that Phorm is finding itself doing a lot of explaining.

Mark "Facebook" Zuckerberg has had his brushes with privacy, too. Lots of the recent conversations surrounding Facebook have been about the difficulty of removing your information from the Facebook servers if you close your account, about how secure that information might be in the first place, and about how much is shared with advertisers.

Again, Facebook's practices might be completely above-board, but the perception of something troubling lingers. Which is why it's worth paying attention to the way Fire Eagle deals with privacy. Fire Eagle is a tool that lets you share your location with all sorts of services. You'll be able to transmit your position from a huge variety of devices, and specify exactly who gets to know where you are.

This is going to be more and more useful as phones become more connected and capable. Imagine if FedEx knew where you actually were, rather than just your address, it might make deliveries more efficient. And looking for all sorts of information would be simpler if your search engine could make common sense deductions based on where you were. All useful stuff. But location information is even more sensitive than browsing data, so Fire Eagle has made privacy central to everything it does. A large, obvious button lets you hide yourself whenever you want to, and an equally large, equally obvious button lets you purge every bit of information about yourself from the site if you want to leave.

It's this stuff that makes a service trustable, a place people want to share with. And if you want to have any sort of relationship with people online, this is how you'll have to think.