The Privacy and Unknown Limitations of Google Photos Explained

Google Photos is undisputedly one of Google’s best products, but it also acts as a sweet ant trap for people who use it extensively. We take a closer look at this product to see if it’s worth it and how it relates to our need for privacy.

Having enough cloud space to store your photos might seem like something ordinary now, but there was a time when that wasn’t the case. The Google Photos we all love and hate at the same time started its life as part of another product called Google+, the social network that died this year.

Back in 2015, Google figured out that they need something to offer people and released Photos as a single product. It seems like an obvious choice now, but we have to keep in mind that most of the products Google released over the years are now defunct.

People don’t really bother reading terms and conditions for offline software they use at home, but services such as Google Photos, which are entirely online, offer a different kind of challenge. Your data is stored online, and you’re trusting another company to take care of your photos.

Let’s imagine that you have an extensive collection of real photos, on paper, with albums, separated to important events like the birth of your kids, the wedding, the trip to Spain, and everything else. But you have thousands and thousands of photos, and they take up an entire room. You simply don’t have the space to store them.

There is a company out there that says it will store all of your photos, even the raunchier ones, in a warehouse somewhere. You can go to the warehouse and view the photos whenever you want and take some home, but for the most part, they have to stay somewhere in storage. And the company promises that it won’t look through your photos.

If we were to hand over real photos to someone else for keeping, most of us would find it difficult to part with them. But for the pictures on the phone, we don’t even think about it; we hand them over without a second thought.

Even though Google Photos is a relatively young service, the parent company and many of its other services have been around for a long time. And like all big companies, their privacy record has been dotted by various incidents, rumors, myths, and half-truths. But we can take a closer look at Google Photos and determine what’s real and what’s false, and maybe learn something in the process.

Persistent myth about Google Photos

The biggest problem, like with any online service, is the privacy aspect, and it’s challenging to imagine stuff more sensitive than photos. By default, the images stored in the cloud are not available to anyone else, unless their owner decides to share them with other people. This in itself is a good thing.

The myth we’re going to talk about is who’s owning what, but this is easy to determine. Myths are usually created when there is not enough information to identify the truth. Many years ago, when Google’s Terms of Service were very different and when Google+ was still alive and well, a paragraph in their agreement looked very worrying.

“11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This licence is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

11.2 You agree that this licence includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organisations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.

11.3 You understand that Google, in performing the required technical steps to provide the Services to our users, may (a) transmit or distribute your Content over various public networks and in various media; and (b) make such changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to the technical requirements of connecting networks, devices, services or media. You agree that this licence shall permit Google to take these actions.”

As you can see, from this old Terms of Service agreement, Google rights regarding your content were much more extensive. But this was before Google Photos ever existed, and back when such privacy concerns weren’t all that prevalent.

The Google Terms of Service has evolved considerably and went through various iterations. The last update dates from January 22, 2019, and those paragraphs mentioned above are no longer present. In fact, they were replaced with a much more readable version that doesn’t require a lawyer’s perspective.

“Some of our Services allow you to upload, submit, store, send or receive content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones.

Some Services may offer you ways to access and remove content that has been provided to that Service. Also, in some of our Services, there are terms or settings that narrow the scope of our use of the content submitted in those Services. Make sure you have the necessary rights to grant us this license for any content that you submit to our Services.”

This last paragraph is of importance because Google does provide users with a way to delete the content of some services, such as YouTube, Gmail, Play Games, and Google Pay. You will notice that Google Photos is not present.

The problem is that it’s unclear what Google is doing with your photos. We know that the automated Assistant scans your images for relevant data and uses all embedded information. It’s a little bit creepy, but it’s also quite useful if you’re looking for something specific in a mountain of images. For example, you can search for the word cars, and you’ll get only the pictures with cars in them.

From what Google has been saying over the years, we also know that their deep learning algorithm hasn’t been unleashed in the Google Photo collection. All the training that went into the Assistant was manual, which meant that people taught it what to recognize.

All in all, the myth that Google might use your photos for other purposes other than the ones stated in the TOS has no basis in reality. It’s a massive liability for the company if some private images end up in a public space without the user’s consent, and we have to keep in mind that more 1.2 billion images are uploaded every day and more than 5 billion photos are viewed every day.

We contacted Google about this particular issue and communication manager Anna Żur was kind to answer. The company doesn’t use currently uses the content uploaded by users to their benefit.

“We don’t currently use photos or videos in Google Photos for advertising purposes and if we were to, we would provide clear understanding to users that we are,” says Google. The use of the word “currently” is not encouraging, but at least we’ll know it if or when it happens.

Making it difficult to jump ship

Another issue that affects anyone who wants to drop Google Photos and the Google ecosystem, has to do with image management. I recently spoke with someone who wanted to give up on Google Photos and move to another platform. But the difference was that he tried to delete the photos from the service without having to remove the entire account.

He amassed tens of thousands of photos over the years, and he didn’t make a particular effort to put them into dedicated albums. You would think that’s fine. Just select the files and delete them manually. Well, it turns out that Google doesn’t really encourage this type of behavior.

It’s quite likely that the photos are stored on numerous servers, and the deleting activity could impact the business. In any case, there are some limitations put in place by Google that are not mentioned anywhere. Even if you’re a client that buys extra space on Google Photos, you’re still going to hit these limitations.

The only conditions mentioned to users are the size of the photos being uploaded to the service, which varies on multiple factors. For example, Google Pixel users can upload pictures and videos in the original quality until January 31, 2022. My friends all the Google Pixel phones, and took a lot of pictures.

It turns out that you can’t have more than 20,000 images in a single album. Let’s say that it’s not a major problem, but users can only delete up to 500 images at once. You can select more than 500, but it’s going to give an error when you try to delete it.  If you have 100,000 images, you’ll need to do this activity 200 times. To make things even more annoying, the batch limitation on delete used to be 1000, but it was reduced.

Now, let’s say you take the time to delete all of you pictures, 500 images at a time. Google doesn’t like this action, and after a few of these actions, the delete function won’t work for a while, sometimes for an hour, maybe more. Most likely, Google treats this action like spam.

It’s so annoying that the community tried to create scripts to makes it easier to select more images, but most of them don’t work. To top it all off, some of the deleted images appear back after they were supposedly deleted.

All of these actions were performed in the web version of Google Photos, where no limitations should be in place. There are numerous forum topics, questions, and threads dedicated to this problem. Some report success, others say that they wasted days trying to delete their libraries. Back in July, Google Driver and Google Photos were delinked, which makes it even harder to manage your photo collection.

As for Google’s answer, Anna Żur sort of covered this issue as well by saying that “We want to make it easy for people to create albums that include the photos and videos are most important to them and we also want to make it easy to delete photos from Google Photos, which as you noted can be done in bulk. We’ve gotten feedback that the current photo and video capacity for albums and the experience for deletions is simple and easy for most people, though we are always looking at where we can make improvements.”

“When you join Google Photos, you’re able to choose a storage option. We also provide details on photo upload quality here in our Help Center (and within Settings in Google Photos). As you noted on mobile you can delete 500 photos & videos at a time, and on web there is no limit, you can delete as many photos and videos in your library as you’d like at once.”

Conclusion

I’m not saying that Google is actively discouraging people from dropping their service and go to another company, but it sure looks like it’s a maze of issues that might just work as discouragement. It’s very similar to the layouts in supermarkets, with no clear exit in sight.

The crux of the matter is that Google Photos doesn’t even have proper competition. There is no other service like it available, even if you would want to switch. There are so many useful features, not to mention the fact that new options are added all the time.

Users who want to leave the service (or who just want to clean up) have a lot of work to do, up to a point where some people might even drop the entire matter. In any case, Google Photos is a service we can’t live without, and leaving it is no easy matter.

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