Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Google Photos

Lots of big news from today’s big Google I/O kickoff presentation. Their new photos product called, uh, Photos is a mix of impressive and a little creepy. It is, therefore, very Google-y, as Steven Levy’s interview with Bradley Horowitz makes clear:

We heard from our Google Plus photo users that we had great technology, but they didn’t want their life’s archive brought into a social product, any social product. It’s more akin to Gmail — there’s no button on Gmail that says “publish on the Internet.” “Broadcast” and “archive” are really different and so part of Google photos is to create a safe space for your photos and remove any stigma associated with saving everything. For instance, I use my phone to take pictures of receipts, and pictures of signs that I want to remember and things like that. These can potentially pollute my photo stream. We make it so that things like that recede into the background, so there’s no cognitive burden to actually saving everything.

This is similar to the way I’ve been using iCloud Photo Library. I take a crapload of pictures, and they’re all stored off-device in a private library. One big difference between iCPL and Google Photos is that the latter allows unlimited storage for free, with some caveats: photos must be less than 16 megapixels apiece and video is limited to 1080p. Also, all of the stuff you upload with the free plan is compressed; this is in addition to whatever compression your phone or camera already applies. That’s worrying, but Google’s examples make it look okay.1

And then there’s the obvious cost of the free version: your privacy. If you’re fully on board with Google’s services, you already supply them with every email you send and receive, everything you search for, every location you look up, and — soon — the purchases you make. In accordance with Google’s privacy policy, much of this information is blended together, attached to your profile, and served back to you as ads.

Levy asked Horowitz about that in his interview:

Is that information in photos siloed, or is that going to be available to enhance my Google experience in other products?

The information gleaned from analyzing these photos does not travel outside of this product — not today. But if I thought we could return immense value to the users based on this data I’m sure we would consider doing that. For instance, if it were possible for Google Photos to figure out that I have a Tesla, and Tesla wanted to alert me to a recall, that would be a service that we would consider offering, with appropriate controls and disclosure to the user.

If they can offer product information based on detecting the contents of your photos, they can serve you ads based on that too. It’s as simple as that.

As we’ve learned from Aran Khanna’s exploration of Facebook Messenger or any of the Snowden leaks, a few disparate points of data gleaned about a person can be associated with one another to build a much more powerful, more comprehensive look at their life.

Serenity Caldwell, iMore:

All of that said, I’m not advising people against signing up for Google Photos. Google has a lot of admirable technical goals, and it genuinely believes this kind of mass data-gathering will help achieve those goals. But that comes at a cost: The company may not be able to get the vast userbase numbers it needs to make its search services best in class without making those services free. And if they’re free, Google has to pay for them in another way. Right now, that way is advertising.

I would love to see this kind of innovation from a company that charges for it with money, not data. But this kind of innovation really only works with the kind of accelerated user and data growth that comes with a free offering and a looser sense of what crosses the creepy line. That’s okay — it’s a choice that people can make. But, though this innovation is tempting, I’m not sure it’s for me. I can’t entrust all my data to a company that is trying to use that information to advertise to me. That feels wrong to me.


  1. Google has a paid tier that allows you to store original-quality files. Despite it being a paid product, Google is still using gleaned information for advertising purposes. ↩︎