Do You Have a Choice When it Comes to Privacy in Online Photos?

Probably not

Key Takeaways

  • Online photo sites require a lot of personal data just to function.
  • Google Photos culls as much data as possible from your images.
  • Storing photos only on your computer is the safest option, but you lose many features. 
Photo of Google Pixel 4a being taken on Android phone

Unsplash / Daniel Romero

Google has finally admitted how much of your private data it harvests when you use Google Photos, and it’s a real eye-opener.

The Google Photos app “privacy nutrition label” in Apple’s App Store shows just how much of your data it collects. You probably guessed that online photo sites trawl your images for data, but one look at this privacy label might shock you. The problem is, most online photo-sharing services collect more info than you’d like. Is there any safe way to sync and share your images?

“By downloading the app onto your device, you’re essentially gift wrapping and handing over massive quantities of your personal data for Google to use however they please,” cybersecurity expert and journalist Casey Crane told Lifewire via email. “And if you don’t try to change the privacy permissions and settings, you’re giving them access to continue doing so for as long as the app remains on your device.”

Precious Data

A lot of the data required by Google Photos is simply down to the nature of photo storage and presentation. It needs access to location data from the images to show them on a map, for example. But the neat thing about Apple’s App Store privacy labels is that you can see exactly what data is being used for. In the case of location, Google also uses it for analytics. This isn’t necessarily bad, and Google is not any worse than other services. 

“Photos is more private than most other Google services, and is about as private as one could reasonably ask,” Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at Comparitech, told Lifewire via email. “They are not used to train image recognition algorithms or other machine learning products.”

"This isn’t necessarily bad, and Google is not any worse than other services."

But the problem isn’t the individual uses that online services make of your photographs. It’s the fact that they have all your images, know when and where they were taken, and can recognize all the objects and people therein. It just takes one hidden change to terms and conditions to exploit it all.

Online Alternatives

The problem is, Google Photos is great. It makes finding, editing, sharing, and enjoying your photos easy. There are online alternatives, but they aren’t necessarily any more private, and they’re certainly not as full-featured. Dropbox offers some curation tools, but is more about straight storage and sharing. Amazon Prime users get photo storage included, but there’s no reason to trust Amazon over any other large tech company. 

Photo-sharing sites like Flickr or SmugMug are more about sharing than storage. 

Another option is Adobe’s Creative Cloud. If you subscribe to Lightroom, this is a pretty great service, especially for people who use non-phone cameras. 

Private sign

Unsplash / Tim Mossholder 

But the best option for privacy seems to be Apple’s iCloud Photo Library, or just keeping everything locally in folders on your computer. Your iCloud Photo Library, built into iPhones, iPads, and Macs, uses iCloud to store your images. You can access them from the web, which may be of concern to you, but all of Apple’s face-recognition and other processing is done on-device, and remains private and secret. Unfortunately, it’s only available to users of Apple products. 

Keep It Local

There are plenty of apps that let you view and organize photos on your computer. You can even just use Windows’ built-in Explorer or the Mac’s Finder, and keep everything in dated folders.

But even if you have a great app to view and edit your images, then you lose out on many other features. “You lose the ability to access your photos from anywhere. Sharing photos might be more difficult. If your PC or phone is lost or damaged, your photos won't be backed up on the cloud,” says Bischoff. 

"Frankly, they’re tired of their sensitive information being collected, used, and mishandled by random unknown companies."

Popular Privacy

Users are finally waking up to the way their privacy is treated by online services. According to an April 2020 report from Pew Research, more than half of US respondents “decided not to use a product or service because of privacy concerns.”

“Privacy is a growing area of concern for users worldwide,” says Crane. “This is apparent when you consider all the data privacy laws that have come into play in recent years. Consumers see headlines virtually every day screaming about new data breaches. And, frankly, they’re tired of their sensitive information being collected, used, and mishandled by random unknown companies.”

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