Russell Davies: Do we want privacy more than services based on our data?
A view from Russell Davies

Russell Davies: Do we want privacy more than services based on our data?

It's been a busy couple of weeks for people who think about privacy and data. Lots of surprises to consider, policy to invent and behaviour to interpret. And we're only at the beginning of lots of this stuff.

The biggest news was probably about all the breaches of security at Sony, but we'll think about that next week. The most interesting moments, to me, have been about Apple, the iPhone and locative privacy.

This started with the apparently sudden realisation that the iPhone kept all sorts of data about where it had been - and shared it with Apple. All sorts of indignant and out-raged headlines and blog posts were quickly assembled alleging deep breaches of privacy and horrendous betrayal of trust.

Real reactions, and the technological truth, quickly proved to be more nuanced. The overwhelming consumer response seemed to be: cool, what a great feature. A little app had been made to draw attention to the problem - it showed you a map of where you'd been, based on the data the phone held.

It was quickly all over the web, as people took screenshots of where they'd been and displayed them on photo-sharing sites and Twitter. They didn't seem to be outraged about the lack of privacy - they were breaching it themselves - but appeared more concerned about the lack of accuracy.

Then it started to emerge that, actually, there were good technical reasons for Apple to be doing this (concerned with improving the locative abilities of mobile devices) and that other Android devices did it too, as did a whole sweep of computing devices - and, anyway, you'd probably agreed to it in the agreement you'd signed but not read when you got the phone.

Clearly, there are serious issues in play here. Apple had done this wrong. But it's not just to do with privacy, it's to do with how that privacy is discussed and disclosed to the user. Locative privacy is a concern, but it's not a simple issue. There are balances to be struck between the amount we want to share to get useful services and the amount we want to keep our location private - and we don't really know how to describe or calibrate that balance. We don't have the language for it. And, since it's an evolving issue, changing at each new technological inflection point, what was a massive breach of privacy yesterday might be a big shrug today.

The shame is that services that actively pioneered close attention to these issues - such as Yahoo!'s FireEagle - have been mostly ignored by their corporate parents. We're going to have to think about things like this, and find ways to talk about it. We're going to have to do it soon.