My Mates PFN app builds privacy into the product

Founders draw on the lessons learned by companies like Facebook and Highlight

Privacy is moving beyond its traditional role in product development — too often it is viewed as only an issue of compliance. In an era of constant connectivity, it is now a central part of product development.

As search and social media companies gather more data about customers and marry that with the ubiquity of smartphones, customers are becoming more concerned about how their data might be used. In turn, that leads to customer demands for more transparency and more control over their user experience and the use of their data.

Two Australian IT managers with a background in the robust security of the finance sector have applied the principle of privacy as product design to mobile location services with a new app called My Mates PFN (private friends network). Their startup business draws on the lessons learned by companies like Facebook and Highlight, and from privacy train wrecks like Girls Around Me.

The founders

Tim Dobner and Tim Wootton both a have strong pedigree the financial services sector where privacy is critical and tolerance for systems failures is absent.

Dobner spent eight years with the Australian Financial Markets Association including a stint as the organisation’s CIO. More recently, he has worked for NZD data where he was involved in the development and implementation of data collection systems for the New Zealand wholesale financial market.

Wootton, an infrastructure architect and project manager, likewise has spent time in the finance sector, but also has a background in ERP implementations and more recently social housing where client confidentiality is a critical consideration.

Dobner had the original idea for My Mates, over a year ago. He brought Wootton, a former colleague and long-time friend, into the mix to reality check the idea. From there, the company Dynamite Dzine was formed.

“We closely researched and monitored all the LBS [location based service] apps, fearing someone would beat us to the finish line with the app just like My Mates,” Dobner said.

“We saw the Facebook fiasco and couldn't believe that they did that and saw the backlash from the FB community.”

The pair also watched the reaction to the Highlight app, which was initially very positive until users started to understand the power and the implications of the app.

Where MyMates differs from services like Friendshake and Highlight is that at its heart it is not trying to get the user to broaden their network of friends, or upload information for the benefit of the network provider. Instead, it puts the experience and particularly privacy in the hands of the customer.

Dobner and Wootton learned other things as well from earlier attempts to build frictionless friend location apps. “We saw the reaction to Highlight at the SXSW conference earlier this year in Austin, Texas and we took note of the kind of commentary that appeared in the tech media describing such apps as ‘creepy’ by their nature.”

Of course the reaction to Highlight was nowhere near as bad as the conflagration that attended the release of Girls Around Me earlier in the year. CIO Australia noted at the time that Girls Around Me exploited gaps in the T&C’s of other location based services to enable its users to identify women who have checked into other services, see their full names and photographs from services like Facebook, and then message them. The women being tracked had no idea, and had not given permission for the app to do so.

The tech media went into meltdown condemning the app and its developers. Apple and Foursquare, among others, moved quickly to ostracise the service.

Other apps like Life 360 were very costly, Dobner said, and in his words it used “the fear factor” to get traction and sales. Life 360 was really pushing a “keep your family safe” message, he said.

Also, when Dobner and Wootton reviewed the market they found that most of the current offerings were not cross platform, like Apple’s ‘Find my Friends’. “So that was a must for us from day one and it’s why we have initially launched with Android and Apple platforms,” Dobner said.

MyMates is also map centric as opposed to people or face centric - like many dating apps, for instance. “We wanted to ensure the UX [user experience] was really intuitive for all user demographics.”

Privacy is the product

What really sets MyMates apart from its predecessors is the commitment the founders made to ensure that privacy is built into the core of the product.

“We always wanted our app to be secure and private. We were so certain of our approach we named the app My Mates ‘Private Friends Network’. It was never about connecting with complete strangers,” Dobner said.

“It was a way to connect with only your friends and family. We wanted to build the app in such a way that the end user has all the power to be seen, or not be seen, and by whomever they want.”

The founders decided early that they would restrict their audience to Facebook and that allowed them to tap into a level of security already provided by the social network.

“If you are not friends on Facebook, [then] you can’t see each other on the My Mates PFN app. Likewise, if you unfriend someone on Facebook it will automatically remove that relationship from My Mates PFN.”

But that was just the start. “We wanted to take it a level further.” That led to one of the big debates between the commercial and technical side of the business. When you first install the app you default to a hidden state. This means a few extra steps for users to take before the app provides real utility. The developers wanted discovery to be automatic, according to Wootton. However, he and Dobner were clear that privacy had to come first.

After logging into My Mates PFN, the app gives you the ability to allow people to see you and for you to see them. If either party fails to provide permission the user will appear offline, according to Wootton.

Dobner and Wootton also carefully considered which information should be available to users, not only from a privacy angle but from the perspective of system performance. The only information provided to My Mates users from their friends Facebook accounts is the person's name and profile picture. Users can add more information if they choose once they have logged into the app.

“You have the ability to add a nickname so when their avatar appears on the map you can display a fun or more relevant name for them. You can also add their phone number to their profile so that you can call them or SMS them from their avatar on the map. This number is only available to you,” Dobner said.

My Mates also provides a group function which Dobner said he and Wootton have not seen in other apps they researched, which lets you make yourself visible to predefined groups depending on context. “So if you are going out on Friday night and only want to see your drinking buddies, then switch your groups to your ‘Friday night mates’ and hey presto up they appear!”

The developers

Dobner contracted Sydney developers to build the app and they in turn brought in an Android and Web services specialist from Hawaii named Joe Engel.

“We needed to ensure we used code that was mutually beneficial to both the Apple and Android developers and it was decided to build using PHP,” Dobner said.

“We chose PHP over HTML5 and other programming languages because we knew we could build the app with better performance. And of course the developers were very comfortable with the chosen language.

"We also used JSON (Java Script Object Notification) for the transport mechanisms (over Web services). This allowed us to really reduce the packet sizes significantly which results in better performance and less network data usage.”

The novelty of the approach employed by Dobner and Wootton actually created some problems for them when it came time to put My Mates through the Apple App Store approval process - an issue many iOS developers would be uncomfortably familiar with.

“We knew that Apple wasn't going to be straight forward. After all we wanted to use location services running in the background so we could maintain greater location accuracy for our app — Cell Tower accuracy just wouldn't cut it.”

Despite this, they were still surprised at how long it took to get the app approved and the lengths they would need to go to navigate Apple’s byzantine approval processes.

“We didn't expect it to take so long. We originally got the app rejected on those precise grounds that we are not a navigation (turn-by-turn) app so why did we need to have that service running. Well, it was pretty obvious to us but it took further explaining to the Apple Worldwide App Review Team before they approved.”

Andrew Birmingham is the CEO of Follow him on Twitter @ag_birmingham.

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