The worst potential privacy scandal ever to hit Google happened recently, when we all found out that Google Street View cars, which take pictures for Google Maps, has been collected fragments of data from people's home Wi-Fi networks as they drove past. Google said the data collection was a mistake, a result of code written for an earlier experimental program.
Google promised to delete the collected data, but then stopped doing so when privacy groups and governments called on Google to retain it so authorities could determine if any laws were broken.
The data collection was a huge blunder. But it's hard to see how Google could have handled the fallout any better.
The Wi-Fi data collection fiasco also highlights another aspect of the new importance of trust. We live in an age where we don't and can't really know what others are doing with our private data.
For example, your cell phone knows where you are at all times because it checks in with local cell towers -- and might even have a GPS built into it. What does your cell carrier do with the information?
What does your operating system maker (Google, Apple, Microsoft, RIM) do with that data? What do location apps do with it? How long do they retain location data?
Apple knows all about your inner life. If you own an iPad or iPhone, they know what you read, what Web sites you visit, what music you listen to, what TV shows and movies you like and they know who all your friends and family are. This is monetarily valuable data for, say, advertisers. What does Apple do with all this information? How long do they retain it?
How many online companies have your credit card information? Your social security number? Your address and phone number? We really have no idea.
With everything becoming social, and social becoming aggregated, we now have to wonder who has access to what information. We share the details of our lives on Facebook. But what happens when a friend approves an app, or connects Facebook with another social network. What is the other online service -- the one we don't even know about -- doing with our data?
If this doesn't sound like a plausible threat, consider a new site called ""Evil." A programmer set up a feed that proves personal names and phone numbers can be easily extracted from Facebook -- by showing the phone numbers (he's nice enough to hide three of the digits).
The bottom line is that the online world has become so complex, the interconnectedness of all things digital so confounding, that the only defense users are left with is a gut feeling for how trustworthy an online service is.
That's why a new age of "trust theater" is suddenly upon us. As companies begin to understand the overarching importance of actively building trust, they'll go to great lengths to convince us that our data is safe in their hands.
Users will have a much harder time separating the truth from the facade. And companies will rise and fall on the perception of trust, more even than the material protection of user privacy.
Who do YOU trust with all your most private data?