Google Photos: Are Your Images Safe?

Photo by Nicolas Ladino Silva
Tom Solid

Tom Solid

Remember the days of film cameras? If you wanted to take professional quality pictures you needed to lug around a heavy camera with the biggest, most expensive, lense. Then you carefully set up your shot and “blindly” snapped your pictures. The you had to wait for the film to be developed before you could see if your effort paid off in a photo to remember or one for the trash can. Today, we each have a top-of-the-line camera right inside our phone. The resolution is great, you have zoom and lighting features, and you don’t have to wait for film to be developed to see how your pictures turned out. With a camera always at our fingertips, we have gone photo crazy. Snapping pictures of our cat, the food we ordered from the food truck, and our kiddies in the bubble bath.

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    WITH ANY GREAT TECH COMES THE NEED TO MANAGE IT IN A BETTER, MORE EFFICIENT WAY​

    To manage our mountain of photos on our own, we have to create files to organize and categorize the pics into groups that will make sense to us when we need to find a specific photo later. And that means spending a lot of time.

    We might have good intentions, but our actual method for managing our photos is probably more like this:

    We go to take a picture with our phone and find our storage is full. We hastily delete a few of our saved pics to get the room we need to take the photo. When we get home we’re lucky if we remember to dump the photos from our phone into a photo file on our computer and that’s as far as it goes.

    ENTER GOOGLE PHOTOS​

    Google Photos is a cloud storage app that stores up to 15 GB of your photos, and videos for free. It works through your Google account, so if you’re using Gmail or any of Google’s other services, you automatically have access to Google Photos.

    Google Photos is available as an app for iPhone and Android, and can also be used in your browser.

    Using the automatic backup and sync functions, Google Photos will upload your photos to provide reliable backup and storage for your pictures and videos. It will sync with the devices you choose, so any changes you make to a photo or video will automatically update across your devices.

    Having access to the cloud to instantly upload your photos is great, but that’s not the greatest feature of Google Photos.

    Google Photos uses Google’s machine learning technology to analyze the content of your photos and organize them into easily searchable groups. Facial recognition, object recognition, and geotagging, automatically organize your pictures into people, places, and things.

    And they’re searchable by keywords, dates, locations, objects, and people. For example, by entering the word “cat” into the search bar, Google Photos will populate all of the photos in your library with a cat in them.

    Suddenly, with many ways to organize your photos, you don’t have a giant mess of pictures to deal with. It’s instant organization.

    These are only a few of the many great features you can access inside this app.

    With all of these great features tempting us into using Google Photos, are there any downsides we should be aware of?

    HOW SECURE ARE MY PICTURES ON GOOGLE PHOTOS?​

    When we use any service that has access to our personal information over the internet, security is always a top concern.

    How secure are our photos? Do we want to risk having all of our memories in one place online, only to have them lost or stolen?

    THE TWO MAIN CONCERNS MOST USERS HAVE WHEN USING A FREE SERVICE LIKE GOOGLE PHOTOS ARE:

    1. What info is Google collecting on me and how do they use it?
    2. Can my information be stolen from outside of Google?

    Let’s look at these issues in more detail.

    WHAT INFO IS GOOGLE COLLECTING ON ME AND HOW DO THEY USE IT?

    Never fool yourself; you are uploading your personal information, in the form of photographs, into a giant database that already tracks your location and your searches. When you use Google’s free services, they collect data on you.

    The list of what is collected is staggering.

    There’s the information you voluntarily provide like your name, email address, telephone number, and personal profile picture. And then there’s the data that is gathered when you use a Google service.

    Google can see which YouTube videos you watch and the websites you visit that use Google ads or Google Analytics. They track what device you’re using, your IP address, cookies, and location information including GPS. There’s more, but that is the bulk of it.

    We don’t think much of it when we give our info away a little bit at a time. But viewed as a whole, this huge amount of information draws a pretty accurate picture of us and of what we do online.

    “If the service is free you are not the customer, you are the product.”

    For many of us, we accept that this is the price we pay to use free services online. As the saying goes, “If the service is free you are not the customer, you are the product.” And the product is your personal information.

    So what specifically does Google use this information for?

    According to Google’s Privacy Policy, (https://policies.google.com/privacy) “We use the information we collect from all of our services to providemaintainprotect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer you tailored content – like giving you more relevant search results and ads.”

    You can manage your privacy settings inside your Google account to manage the types of information Google collects, adjust the types of ads you see, and control which personal information (including your photos) you want public or private.

    All of the information above applies to your Google Photos account as well as your other Google accounts. You sign into each of these accounts with the same username and password, and they all fall under the same privacy policy and terms of service. You can read more about the data collection, privacy, and security of your Google accounts here. (https://privacy.google.com/)

    CAN MY INFORMATION BE STOLEN FROM OUTSIDE OF GOOGLE?​

    Besides Google having access to your info, what about the possibility of hackers getting into Google’s system?

    Fortunately for us, Google takes security seriously.

    In November of 2017, Google published a report highlighting research they conducted on the phenomenon called Account Takeover. (https://security.googleblog.com/…)

    Account takeover, or “hijacking”, has been reported by more than 15% of internet users, according to the report. Hijackers steal usernames and passwords to online accounts to gain access to private information.

    Using Google accounts as a case study, Google teamed up with the University of California to find out how accounts are being hijacked, and learn how to defend against these attempts.

    The results of the study were used to increase the security of Google accounts, and were provided to the public so other platforms could also defend against outside invaders.

    Other measures taken by Google to protect your information are:

    •  Encryption technology like HTTPS and Transport Layer Security, which protect your stored photos, emails, videos, and website visits from being intercepted by outside sources.
    • A state-of-the-art cloud infrastructure that is continuously monitored. Your data is stored in multiple data centers so a disaster in one area won’t result in losing your stored information.
    • Threat detection that monitors for spam, malware, viruses, and other malicious code.

    Now you know what Google does to safeguard your data.

    WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PROTECT YOUR PICTURES AND VIDEOS STORED ON GOOGLE PHOTOS?​

    • Use Google’s 2-step verification. While this may seem a little inconvenient, the added security is worth the extra step it takes to access your account.
    • Don’t upload pictures you wouldn’t want leaked to the world. Remember the 2014 iCloud security breach, where nude photos of celebs were stolen and posted online? Don’t let that be you. Why even take the chance?
    • Keep a hard copy of your pics and videos for backup. Use optical media like writable CD’s and DVD’s, or solid state drives like a flash drive. (These storage devices can corrupt over time so be sure to check and update them on a set schedule.)
    • Use the custom privacy settings inside of Google Photos. Custom privacy settings allow you to limit the information Google collects, and you can control what personal information shows up on your Google profile. You can also choose who to share your photos with, and who to block from seeing your pics.
    • Do a “reverse image” search. If you think one of your photos may have been compromised, you can upload that photo into reverse.photos (https://reverse.photos/) and Google will show all the pages on the internet that have similar images.

    Conclusion​

    In exchange for access to an awesome free service like Google Photos, most people are content to know that their info is being collected, as long as it isn’t used in a malicious or irresponsible way. Google takes strong measures to ensure the privacy and security of their users; including how they use your info, and protecting you from the outside.

    In the world we live in, security breaches and data misuse happen. Hackers hack, governments snoop, and companies sneakily gather and sell our information.

    To protect yourself, stay informed by keeping up on the policies and practices of the software and services you use most. And tune into websites like Tomsolid.com that keep you up-to-date on the latest tech news and security threats.

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      Your Privacy is our Policy.