At its I/O developer conference last week Google announced a big revamp of its cloud-based photo sharing and storage product, uncoupling it from the Google+ social network, where usage was inevitably constrained, and sending it winging its way onto the wider web and iOS as a standalone app.
Its flagship associated announcement was that unlimited cloud storage on Google Photos is free — meaning the product promises to cover all your back up photo needs. There is also a paid version, for pros wanting to upload the most high res content; but for everyone else your photos get squeezed gently through a lossless compression algorithm and shelved within Google’s infinite storage cloud for no monthly fee.
Photos, as Google’s marketing materials lavishly reminded us, are not just a collection of pixels. These are your precious memories the company is offering to host gratis. (Well, and all the other quotidian stuff you end up photographing and screenshotting with your phone — like receipts, documents, directions, maps, menus, price-tags, places you’re going, things you like the look of and want to buy, etc etc.) But this is not generosity. Oh no. This is lock in baby, lock in.
There’s even a feature that will delete photos from your phone when you’ve run out of local storage if the shots have already been backed up to the Google Photos cloud platform. So a full strength photo storage lock in mechanism is go here.
The lure of free unlimited storage masks another motivating impetus. The big one: data. Oodles and oodles of personal data which Google is hankering to apply its data mining algorithms to. And how better to get its hands on all that personal content than by encouraging people to upload it themselves to a free storage repository. After all, the unloved Google+ was just acting as bottleneck on what could be a(nother) very sizable personal data funnel for Google’s business.
Its algorithms don’t just see your photos as a random collection of pixels, of course. They’re far smarter than that. Google has even dolled up these underlying data-mining smarts as another consumer lure: Google Photos’ computer vision-powered image search lets people mine their personal photo repository via natural language queries, doing away with the tedium of having to tag stuff. So now you can query your personal photo bank to find every picture of a craft beer bottle you’ve ever snapped, or all the meals you’ve ever photographed, or each and every selfie you’ve ever taken. Should you really want to.
And just as you can trivially navigate and review your visual history using this tool, so too can Google.
Its algorithms are even smart enough to geotag images based on stuff they recognize in the shots — like landmarks — so even if you’ve turned off that type of location-stamping in your phone’s camera setting, Google can still work out some of where you’ve been based on what its algorithms can pull out of your photos. And photo time-stamps give further signals the company can data mine for intel on your passions and preoccupations. Truly a treasure trove of personal data for its algorithms to ingest and feed into its ad-targeting machinery.
There’s no doubt Google Photos is a massive landgrab for personal data — at a time when visual imagery is the biggest social currency of the web. Just as, a decade+ ago, Google launched its own webmail product with significantly more storage as the carrot to peel users away from rival email products, it’s now repeating the trick with photos — using the competitor-beating promise of free unlimited photo storage to lure in and lock down access to mobile users’ principle expression stream. And the price of its ‘free’ unlimited storage? You giving Google unfettered access to every vista (and its associated metadata) on your camera roll.
Today Google also went on a propaganda offensive by launching a centralized ‘privacy dashboard’ that seeks to sanitize the extent and ambition of its data-gathering activities, while also claiming to offer users easier access to some privacy settings (such as the ability to edit or purge the history of videos you’ve watched on YouTube).
It’s interesting the company feels the need to spin so hard on privacy. The language used on this dashboard is couched to suggest Google’s data gathering activities are performed principally for the user’s benefit. Which is a pitch-perfectly disingenuous response to growing consumer concerns about data privacy.
If you really dig down — to where Google claims it’s giving “candid answers” to questions such as “What data does Google collect? What does Google do with the data it collects?” — you get to read Google describe its ad business as “a service” it provides to “web publishers to help them fund their business through advertising”. Which is as transparent as this ‘privacy dashboard’ gets on the key point: that the fuel powering Google’s ad sales business is your personal data. And that the company’s continued unfettered access to your personal data is therefore paramount.
Instead, Google has seized on consumer privacy concerns and done the very best it can to defuse them with marketing misdirection, or bland and intellectually dishonest statements such as: “We keep your personal information private and safe — and put you in control.”
The company unified the privacy policies for more than 60 of its products back in 2012 — a move which got it into trouble with European data protection regulators because such drastic amalgamation results in a lack of transparency about what specific services are doing with your data, and makes it harder for people to control how their personal data is generally used by Google. So the exact opposite of user in control then.
When asked for more specific information on how Google Photos uses and processes user data, a company spokeswoman had only the following pieces of colorless window-dressing to add:
Your Google Photos account is just as private and secure as any other Google service.
We don’t share your information with others unless you explicitly choose to share it with them.
Google Photos will not use images or videos uploaded onto Google Photos commercially for any promotional purposes, unless we ask for the user’s explicit permission.