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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Everyone Is Using Google Photos Wrong

Every year, more than a billion people use the Google Photos app to upload and store billions of pictures and videos. For many, the process is likely identical: You snap some photos with your phone and they’re automatically uploaded to Google’s cloud service. You might pick the best photo and share it on WhatsApp or Instagram and then never think about the rest of them ever again. The photos join a constantly updating stream of data about life.

But it shouldn’t be this way. Uploading thousands of photos and never taking any steps to sort or manage them creates a series of privacy risks and is making it impossible to maintain your photo collection in the future. Now is the time to stop being an information hoarder, before it spirals out of control.

For the past six weeks, I’ve spent around a dozen hours deleting thousands of photos that had been uploaded to my Google Photos account in the last half-decade. In total, I erased 16,774 photos and videos. During the process—and thousands of "delete" taps—three things stood out: My photos collection unknowingly includes a lot of sensitive personal information (both about me and others); I don't need to keep so many photos; and wrestling my collection into shape frees up a lot of space in my Google account.

My photo archive goes back to the early 2000s when everything was captured using an eight-megapixel digital camera. There are tens of thousands of photos—it’s impossible to say how many exactly—and they are entirely handled by Google. The photos were initially stored on CDs, moved to Flickr before it limited collections to 1,000 images, and finally found their way onto Google Photos around 2018. When Google limited accounts to 15 gigabytes of storage, I started paying for more.

Inside the collection, family holiday shots sit alongside selfies. Food pictures and dog pictures are plentiful. As phone cameras have improved and cloud storage has become seemingly unending, it appears that I take more photos every year. I am not the only one. Google Photos holds an unfathomable amount of data about us all: In 2020, the company said it stores 4 trillion photos, with 28 billion new photos and videos uploaded each week.

Deleting thousands of photos was a manual, tedious process. Using an iPad, I scrolled through every photo I had backed up from the past 15-plus years and tapped each one that I wanted to send to trash. In one of the longer sessions, I erased 2,211 photos in 45 minutes. The majority of photos binned were duplicates: Instead of having 16 pictures of me running through a forest, only the best two or three remain. Thousands of screenshots were culled: The moment I was verified on Twitter and the news article about a goat being arrested didn’t make it through the process unscathed.

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But beneath the surface, there were plenty of images that should never have been kept in the first place. For years, I had been keeping photos of passports—my own and those of friends who had sent me the details for booking trips. I found photos of the details needed to log in to my bank account. I was storing people’s addresses and screenshots of directions to their homes. The list goes on: private email addresses, NSFW photos, screenshots of embarrassing conversations, common running routes and travel directions, pictures of notebooks from sensitive meetings. Huge swaths of my life were stored in my photos. I didn’t know they were there or had forgotten about them as soon as they weren’t useful. 

Each of these presents a risk. While Google makes the vast majority of its profits from advertising—its privacy policy says it won’t show you personalized ads based on your photos—the company has a strong data security record. Successful hacks against the company are incredibly rare. However, each piece of data that you’re unnecessarily storing adds a little extra hazard if something does go wrong. Documents could be used to assist with identity theft, while other personal details could contribute to building up a picture of who you talk to, where you live, and the places you frequent. Aside from any potential data breaches, my photos could potentially be accessed if my phone is lost or stolen. (These issues aren’t unique to Google Photos; they equally apply to any online photo storage service.)

But there are other reasons to spend some time clearing up your photos. Ever-expanding cloud storage makes it possible to keep taking photos and adding to the pile. Once sorted, it has been easier to find specific events and the best photos from them. If I had waited another few years, the task would have been too daunting to even start. In another 10 years, I may have taken an extra 20,000 to 40,000 photos. Now I plan on sorting the most recent photos once a year. 

Plus, practically speaking, there’s now more space in my Google account. Before I started deleting everything, I’d used up around 80 GB of storage; I’ve decreased this to about 60 GB. Google has some tools to help you manage your photos. You can archive photos if you don’t want to delete them or keep them in your main photo library. And pictures can be siphoned off into albums (it was too late for me). Its storage management tools allow you to delete large photos and videos in bulk and get rid of screenshots and blurry photos. It’s also possible to free up some of your account’s space by shrinking the size of photos by dropping them to “storage saver quality.”

However, my obsession with organizing my digital life—including operating a strict WhatsApp Zero policy—means that I would be fully satisfied with the job only if I did it manually. As I sifted through the tens of thousands of photos I’ve taken during two-thirds of my life, there was a satisfying glow to the process—a nostalgia vortex. Once I was done, I started taking more photos.

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