At its I/O developer conference last week Google announced a big revampÂ ofÂ its cloud-based photo sharing and storage product, uncoupling it from theÂ Google+ social network, where usage wasÂ inevitably constrained, and sending it winging its wayÂ onto the wider web andÂ iOS as a standalone app.
ItsÂ flagship associated announcement was that unlimited cloud storage on Google Photos is free â€” meaning the productÂ promises to coverÂ allÂ your back up photo needs. There is alsoÂ a paid version, for pros wanting to upload the most high res content; but for everyoneÂ else yourÂ photosÂ get squeezed gently through a lossless compression algorithm and shelved withinÂ Googleâ€™s infinite storage cloud for no monthly fee.
Photos, as Googleâ€™s marketing materials lavishly reminded us, are not just a collection of pixels. These are your precious memoriesÂ the companyÂ is offering to host gratis. (Well, and all the other quotidian stuff you end upÂ photographing and screenshotting with yourÂ phone â€” like receipts,Â documents, directions, maps, menus, price-tags, places youâ€™re going, things you like the look of and want to buy, etc etc.) But this is notÂ generosity. Oh no.Â This isÂ lock in baby, lock in.
Thereâ€™s even a feature that will delete photos fromÂ your phone whenÂ youâ€™ve run out of local storage ifÂ the shots have already been backed up to the Google Photos cloud platform. So a full strengthÂ photoÂ storageÂ 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 whichÂ Google is hankering to applyÂ its data mining algorithms to. And how better to get its hands on all that personal contentÂ than by encouraging peopleÂ to upload it themselves to a free storage repository. After all, the unloved Google+ was just acting as bottleneckÂ on what couldÂ be a(nother) very sizableÂ personalÂ data funnel for Googleâ€™s business.
ItsÂ algorithms donâ€™t just see your photos as a random collection of pixels, of course. Theyâ€™re far smarter than that. Google has evenÂ dolledÂ up theseÂ underlying data-miningÂ smarts asÂ another consumer lure: Google Photosâ€™Â computer vision-poweredÂ image search lets peopleÂ mine their personal photo repository via natural language queries,Â doing away with the tedium of having to tag stuff.Â So now you can query your personal photo bank to find every picture of a craft beer bottle youâ€™ve ever snapped, or all the meals youâ€™ve ever photographed,Â or each and every selfie youâ€™veÂ everÂ taken. Should you really want to.
And just as youÂ can trivially navigateÂ and review your visual history using thisÂ tool, so too can Google.
Its algorithms are even smart enough to geotag images based on stuff they recognize in the shotsÂ â€” like landmarksÂ â€” so even if youâ€™ve turned off that typeÂ of location-stamping in your phoneâ€™s camera setting, GoogleÂ can still work out some of where youâ€™ve been based on whatÂ its algorithms can pull out of your photos. And photo time-stamps give further signalsÂ the companyÂ can data mine for intel on yourÂ passions and preoccupations. Truly a treasure trove of personal data for its algorithms to ingest and feedÂ intoÂ its ad-targeting machinery.
Thereâ€™s no doubt Google Photos is aÂ massive landgrab for personal data â€” at a time when visual imagery is theÂ biggest social currency of the web.Â Just as, a decade+ ago, Google launched its ownÂ webmail product with significantly more storage as the carrot to peel users away fromÂ rival emailÂ products, itâ€™s now repeatingÂ the trickÂ with photos â€” using the competitor-beating promise of free unlimited photoÂ storage to lure in and lock downÂ access to mobile usersâ€™ principle expression stream. AndÂ the price of itsÂ â€˜freeâ€™ unlimited storage? You giving Google unfettered access to everyÂ vista (and its associatedÂ metadata) onÂ yourÂ camera roll.
Today Google also went on aÂ propaganda offensive byÂ launching a centralized â€˜privacy dashboardâ€™Â thatÂ seeks toÂ sanitize theÂ extent and ambition of itsÂ data-gathering activities, while also claiming to offer users easier access to some privacy settings (such as the ability to edit orÂ purgeÂ the history of videos youâ€™ve watched on YouTube).
Itâ€™s interesting the company feels the need to spin so hard on privacy. The language used on thisÂ dashboard is couchedÂ toÂ suggest Googleâ€™sÂ data gathering activities are performed principally for the userâ€™s benefit.Â Which isÂ a pitch-perfectlyÂ disingenuousÂ response toÂ growing consumer concerns about data privacy.
If you really dig down â€” to where Google claims itâ€™s givingÂ â€œcandid answersâ€Â to questions such as â€œWhat data does Google collect? What does Google do with the data it collects?â€Â â€” you get to read Google describeÂ its ad businessÂ as â€œa serviceâ€ it provides to â€œweb publishers to help them fund their business through advertisingâ€. Which is as transparent as this â€˜privacy dashboardâ€™ gets on the key point: thatÂ the fuelÂ powering Googleâ€™sÂ adÂ salesÂ business is your personal data.Â And that the companyâ€™sÂ continuedÂ unfettered access to your personalÂ data is therefore paramount.
Instead, GoogleÂ has seized on consumerÂ privacyÂ concerns and done the very best it can to defuseÂ them with marketing misdirection, or bland and intellectually dishonest statements such as:Â â€œWe keep your personal information private and safe â€”Â and put you inÂ control.â€
The company unified the privacy policies for more than 60 of itsÂ products back in 2012 â€” a moveÂ whichÂ got it into trouble with European data protection regulatorsÂ because such drastic amalgamationÂ results in a lack of transparency about what specific services are doing with yourÂ data, and makes itÂ 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 informationÂ on how Google Photos uses and processes userÂ data, aÂ companyÂ spokeswoman had only theÂ followingÂ pieces of colorlessÂ window-dressing to add:
Your Google Photos account is just as private and secure as any other Google service.
We donâ€™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 userâ€™s explicit permission.