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Is Google Photos private? Can anyone else view your photos?

Cloud technology has been one of the most significant breakthroughs of the 21st century so far. The ability to store data effortlessly and access it at any time from anywhere via the internet has given a new meaning to convenience.

Search engine giant Google is one of the leaders in this field. Their Photos app, which ships with almost every Android device, is one of the best gallery apps, as it allows you to organise all your captured moments according to the date, time, location and among other tags.

Using Google’s renowned AI prowess, it also features Google Lens, which can identify text and objects in your images, in addition to recognising faces of your friends and family.

But cloud tech also brought alongwith several privacy and security concerns, which make the users concerned about their data’s safety.

They’re often left asking questions like ‘does backing up my photos online make them accessible to other users?’ or ‘Are they private or free for all see?’. Here we talk about Google Photos and whether you have to trade off privacy for convenience to use the service.

The idea behind Google Photos

Before getting into the questions concerning the privacy of your photos, one needs to understand how the app functions.

For starters, it comes pre-installed on most Android phones; even alongside the default gallery app on devices running a skin on top of Android. It is also available for iOS users as well. The app functions like any standard gallery app; the only difference being it is backed by Google’s tech, which is more efficient when it comes to organising your photos.

Google Photos offers a free backup option to the users that allows creating a copy of the photos on their devices on Google’s servers, linked with their account.

If you choose not to back up the photos, they’ll still remain saved on your device storage, and the app will function like any regular gallery app. However, you miss out on the Google Photos search option — that brings even more questions related to privacy — which you can avail if you opt to back your photos up.

Backing your photos up to the cloud, also means that they get synced across all devices logged in with your Google Account, and you’ll be able to access it from any other device.

Google automatically syncs your media library and keeps backing up your photos. You can control the sync and backup via the app’s settings.

Also read: What is an NFC attack? How does it work and 3 preventive measures

Are backed up Google Photos private?

In a broad sense, yes. All your photos, irrespective of whether they’ve been backed up or not are private and can be accessed only by you. However, if you do share individual images, with some other user, then they will also have access to those photos. Since your photos are backed up remotely on Google’s servers, a breach there could make your data vulnerable, though given the magnitude of Google’s operations that might not happen.

Bear in mind that Google does use your data anonymously to train its machine learning algorithms to enhance its features such as the recently released search feature that allows users to search their photos based on tags they might’ve been given and also search for people in your photos — a byproduct of training facial recognition modules of the company’s algorithm.

Your photos won’t appear anywhere else on the Internet unless you’ve manually shared your photos there. Also if you’re logged in on another device, and you’ve turned on the Back Up & Sync option, then your photos will appear on those devices as well.

Below are the few ways your photos could appear on another device.

  • By adding a partner account: If you’ve added a partner account in Google Photos, then certain photos that the app deems are relatable between the two accounts will be shared between the two. Thus, both accounts will have some common photos in their libraries. 
  • By sharing a link: Another way Google Photos allows sharing an image with someone is by generating a link for that image or album. Anyone who has this link can view the photo, even if they don’t have Google Photos installed on their device.
  • By sharing with a Google Photos user: Lastly, you can share photos or entire albums within the app itself to another user. The shared media will be available for them to view.

Also read: How secure are your photos on social media? And how to protect them

Can you hide images in Google Photos?

Yes, you can hide photos, or in other words, prevent them from showing up in the main library. This can be done by opening up an image and hitting the vertical three-dot option, which will give you the Archive option. What happens is, any photo, whether you’ve backed it up or not doesn’t show up in your main Photos library.

These photos can later be accessed by opening the app and hitting the top-left hamburger option. You will see an Archive folder, and that is where your images will be hidden — well, kind of, at least to the untrained eye. 

Also read: How to set, edit and delete a Google alert?

Should you be worried?

To sum up, your Google Photos are well and truly private from anyone unless you’re account is signed in on another device, or you’ve manually shared the photo with another user.

However, are your Photos accessible to Google? Well, that might be likely. As mentioned above, these backups are created on Google’s servers, and they do have access to them — whether they choose to invade your privacy or not is really up to them. Google employs a lot of user data to train its AI and ML modules and could as well be using your photos for that purpose.

Well, for the most part, yes you should be worried, at least a bit. Google was seen as a tech startup that’s good at its core and wants to bring positive changes to the world. However, as the company has turned into a tech behemoth, it has been competing with other similar companies for space. It is said to be keeping profits above their ‘Do no evil’ philosophy with bids for military projects in USA as well as China’s infamous state-controlled Dragonfly search engine development.

The cloud storage available via Google Photos isn’t foolproof, but that’s a tradeoff many users are happy making for added convenience to their daily lives. However, that doesn’t mean you need to too. You can turn off the backup option on Google Photos and have them stored on your device exclusively and can also create a local backup of the photos on your PC or an external storage drive.

As is the case with a lot of technology that we use today, Google Photos is still being developed and new avenues explored by the company. So, you need to be careful and take precautions while using such services. New vulnerabilities arising out of bugs are discovered frequently and since the tech isn’t foolproof yet — might never be — your privacy is really in your hands.

Also read: How to backup WhatsApp data and how to restore backups?

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