The new Google Photos app is amazing but is it worth giving up so much personal information?

The new Google Photos app, announced at last week’s I/O and available later that day, is everything a consumer application should be. It delights the user on all levels, takes all the pain out of photo management, makes searching through photos a breeze with its auto-grouping, and, as a bonus, serves as impervious storage for all a user’s photos. It is, in a word, spectacular.  Aside from de-duping, and taking the bold step to actually delete a duplicate, there is nothing else that I need for photo management.

Google Photos recognizing a restaurant, Tilt,  in the Northwest District of Portland, Oregon. Location was turned off in the camera app.

Google Photos recognizing a restaurant, Tilt, in the Northwest District of Portland, Oregon. 

So why am I not busy uploading my thousands of photos taken on digital cameras pre-mobile? Because I have seen the awe-inspiring capabilities of Google’s image processing algorithms and frankly, despite the amazing product features, I’d rather not hand over such detailed personal information, even for the free backup. A prime example is Google’s detection of places. On the photos already synced, Google Photos accurately detected places on photos either taken on my DSLR (no GPS) and my phone camera (“save location” turned off.) Detecting places is so advanced, “Collections” was even able to identify restaurants, museums and neighborhoods. Like I said, powerful stuff.

So, putting my paranoid hat on, what other information could Google infer from photos? Here are just a few thoughts:

  • Marital status and all about the wedding.
  • Children and their ages. Are there any newborns?
  • Pets, even breeds, and how much an owner spends on accessories.
  • Auto ownership.
  • Vacation habits, including destinations, frequency, hotels, and restaurants. It might be able to estimate the money spent on a vacation.
  • Schools, after-school activities and hobbies for family members.
  • Fitness and sports, for the entire family.
  • Friends, not just who they are but what do you do together.
  • Food, recognize dishes at restaurants, estimate calories, understand grocery shopping habits.

These are just a few of the very desirable bits of personal information that users would be handing over to Google so that it could add them to their user profile, and be able to tailor something all users want: more targeted ads.

This leads me to a study conducted by Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania released today. Their conclusion shows that many users are uncomfortable with the business model that provides them with free product in return for advertising based on personal information. Says the study: “many Americans do not think the trade-off of their data for personalized services, giveaways or discounts is a fair deal.” Adds the study: “a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data—and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs. Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them.”

So what to do? Let users pay for using a product. Zeynep Tufekci at the New York Times asks Facebook to please, take her money. In the article she brings up an interesting point: “Facebook makes about 20 cents per user per month in profit. This is a pitiful sum, especially since the average user spends an impressive 20 hours on Facebook every month, according to the company. This paltry profit margin drives the business model: Internet ads are basically worthless unless they are hyper-targeted based on tracking and extensive profiling of users. This is a bad bargain, especially since two-thirds of American adults don’t want ads that target them based on that tracking and analysis of personal behavior.”  Ms Tufekci suggests that the newsfeed could change significantly, for the better: “If Facebook didn’t have to control the feed to keep us on the site longer and to inject ads into our stream, it could instead offer us control over this algorithm.”

What would happen if sites and apps allowed users to be paying customers in return for use of these services without the collection of personal information or tracking across sites? Would enough users opt into this option for it to be a viable business model? I’d gladly pay Google just to back up all my photos in high-res, regardless of all the other fabulous Google Photo features.  Would you?

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One thought on “The new Google Photos app is amazing but is it worth giving up so much personal information?

  1. Pingback: Facebook Moments: another privacy dillema | What it all boils down to

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