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Summary:

Software services and applications are becoming increasingly intertwined with users’ lives, and this connection is leading to greater privacy concerns. Geoffrey Woo and Jon Zhang of Glassmap say there are four things that really matter: real-time adaptiveness, transparency, the right amount of privacy, and user-service symmetry.

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Software services and applications are becoming increasingly intertwined with users’ lives. And this connection is leading to increasing concerns about privacy. We have already seen service-to-user dissonance with the recent privacy controversies at Google, Apple and Path. As the co-founders of Glassmap, a real-time location sharing service, we have first hand experience with trying to resolve this dissonance.

Robert Scoble recently criticized Glassmap’s registration process as a severe violation of user privacy. If the “Post to Facebook” option was left checked, an invitation to join Glassmap would show up on the user’s timeline. Glassmap has admittedly benefited from the additional virality. But we also believe that in a boisterous, loose-sharing Facebook landscape, our target market of college students and young professionals benefited from attracting their friends to the service. (We are now eliminating this feature because Facebook told us to.)

However, a minor controversy like this hinders honest discussion regarding the more important issues at hand. Instead of giving into Silicon Valley sensationalism, we’d rather have a real dialogue about online privacy.

There are four things that really matter: real-time adaptiveness, transparency, the right amount of privacy, and user-service symmetry.

1. Real-time adaptiveness

Privacy desires and demands are much more dynamic than Internet companies currently account for. In the real world, we constantly shift privacy thresholds when we move from home to work to shopping to clubbing. Facebook has introduced “lists” and Google has introduced “circles” to more finely tune the complex temporality of users’ privacy preferences. However, even these attempts are curated on static, a priori information. Future services must find ways to dynamically adapt to their users’ shifting privacy thresholds.

2. Transparency

Users should be able to very clearly see what their actual privacy settings are (who they’re sharing with, what they’re sharing with them). They should also have straightforward, simple and fine-grained control of those settings. Social discovery applications like Highlight remove control from the user, allowing anyone the service deems acceptable to obtain your information. “Friends of friends” feels deceptively innocuous, but if your 500 friends each have 500 friends, a quarter million people might have access to your information. This lack of clarity results in the creepiness that is widely associated with these products.

3. The right amount of privacy

As social networks have shown repeatedly, more privacy is not necessarily better. Products cannot assume the user’s privacy preference lies at either extreme (share-everything or share-nothing). Instead, they must try to find the sweet spot in the middle of the continuum. Actions that adjust a user’s settings towards that optimum should therefore be made as easy and automatic as possible, so long as transparency and control are preserved.

4. User-service symmetry

While a lot of effort is spent on the design of both asymmetric and symmetric user-to-user relationships (subscribing, following, friending, etc.), less effort is spent on the relationship between the user and the service. As users offer their information to the service, the service must also present that information back to the user. Many privacy concerns revolve around simply not knowing what information a particular service has collected. Because social products now often act as proxies between users, openness between the service and their users becomes even more important.

This is how we think about privacy. We are optimistic about the power of information, and we are hopeful that a deeper understanding of it will result in meaningful and beneficial technologies for users.

Geoffrey Woo and Jon Zhang are co-founders of Glassmap, a real-time location sharing application available for iOS and Android

Image courtesy of Flickr user Sean MacEntee.

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  1. I have tried out just about all of the location sharing apps out there: Highlight, Glancee, Sonar, Glassmap, Find my Friends, Now, etc… I like to see the Glassmap founders addressing the privacy issue the location sharing space is struggling with. It seems to me they really care about meeting the location sharing demand and its quite clear they aren’t writing this article to promote their product. Glassmap just so happens to be my favorite location sharing app right now. I don’t like these serendipitous apps like Highlight because I just don’t care about meeting random strangers on the street who have a few things in common with me (usually 1 mutual friend and also similar “likes” on facebook such as the show Entourage or a pro football team). Glassmap really helps me connect with my actual friends. The way they have set up their app makes it completely clear who I am sharing my information with and when I am sharing it. Glassmap deals with all of the privacy issues that really matter in such a way that I don’t feel compromised using this fun application. Like I said, the Glassmap co-founders weren’t promoting Glassmap in this article, so I thought I’d do it for them. 5 stars across the board, keep up the good work!

  2. Social app or not, companies need to get over this urge to take the path of least resistance. I think Scoble’s issue was with having to opt-out of the Facebook timeline post by default AND having no control over what it said. When he pointed this out, you said, “If you had the time to make a 2 minute video and a full length blog post, then you should have had the time to read.” Really?

    There are very few assumptions that one can make about users, having the time to “read” isn’t one of them. His reality doesn’t match your reality and that’s okay, but if you expect widespread usage of your app, finding common ground between the different realities is probably your best bet, at least with regard to users. You alienated me by making the assumption that I (and others that may use your app) have the time to read the screen.

    It wasn’t a “minor” controversy and it didn’t “hinder” honest discussion. He didn’t just rant about the particular issues he was having and leave it at that. He offered a way to rectify it. He went on to point out two very useful pieces of information as a user of your product which you seem to have completely glossed over: 1. “Only put stuff on my feed AFTER YOU SHOW ME WHAT WILL GO THERE.” and 2. “Only put stuff on my feed AFTER YOU GIVE ME THE ABILITY TO CHANGE IT.” What did you do with that advice?

    If you expect an open and honest dialog about user privacy, then stop making assumptions about your users.

  3. Actually talking and leading about real privacy issues here. I like it glassmap.

  4. It is inappropriate to dismiss the issues that Scoble brought up as “minor controversy.” Having a respect for a user’s privacy and making sure they have complete control over what they share is fundamentally important. The argument that we live in a “boisterous, loose-sharing Facebook landscape” is ridiculous. Research has shown that young people care as much about privacy as old people, if not more.

    Whoever will succeed with location sharing will be whoever users feel they can trust the most. By trying to justify what you did and now trying to misdirect us by saying that we’re not talking about the “real” issues, you have proven that you aren’t worthy of location data.

    You should have just apologized and promised to never do it again.

  5. article makes some interesting points.. privacy, like anything, doesn’t come in absolutes and i fully agree that there’s a lot of space in the location market for more finely tuned privacy and networking preferences.

    in fact i’d say the location market is still wide open and waiting for an app that effectively manages this problem. the current apps out there right now are just weird.. knowing that someone nearby likes the same basketball team as i do doesn’t seem very valuable to me and a bit creepy to be honest.

    curious to what the market comes up with. i like the perspective these guys have.. glassmap looks very slick, has potential, looking forward to what they come up with in the future.

  6. Robert Scoble Sunday, March 18, 2012

    You guys still haven’t gotten on the right side of the line. Sigh.

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