Private sign above a mailbox

Are Your Images Safe With Google?

In this post I talked about the importance of saving your images to the cloud as at least one form of backing up and preserving. The recent wildfire tragedy in California really hammers home the importance of keeping your vital documents and memories off site. Sometimes you just won’t have the time. It’s a horrible way to think. No one wants to plan for the worst case. But it can happen. Some people, myself included on occasion, can be very suspicious of these big companies holding on to their private photos and documents. So I thought I would review their Privacy Policies, starting with Google. First the bad news. Google saves, analyzes and uses all of your data for their purposes of making money. But they don’t hide this fact from you. They have written out their Privacy Policy in simple terms so you can read all about it. If you are interested in going deeper, it’s totally worth the time. They tell you straight out what they are doing. They compile and sort your data and activity, from your Gmail account, your photos, where you travel with your phone, what apps you use, how your smartphone is performing and what you search for on the internet. They say they do this to enhance your internet experience with pushed information that suits your interests and patterns. You see this with faster map searches, consistent language choices, autocomplete forms, YouTube video suggestions based on past searches, ads for the last store you visited online etc. etc. And if you have other devices connected to their services, like home control, or smartwatches, they will collect that as well. What that really means is that they can build comprehensive data packages of targeted and specific audiences that they can sell to their advertisers. But before you go all Mr. Robot on me let’s look at the fine print. It may seem a bit overwhelming at first but they do allow you to control, to a certain extent, how much information they can collect from you and if that information is directly connected to your name and contact info. In my How To document Google Privacy Settings, I break down the relevant sections for both your Google Account and your Google Photos so that you can go through and review your activity and privacy settings. It is very easy to do and Google provides many areas where you can read more about a particular setting and how it effects your activity. If you dig deeper into their information, you will also find that they,
…don’t show you personalized ads based on sensitive categories, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, or health.

…don’t share information that personally identifies you with advertisers, such as your name or email, unless you ask us to. For example, if you see an ad for a nearby flower shop and select the “tap to call” button, we’ll connect your call and may share your phone number with the flower shop.(1)

In addition, you can read their Public Transparency Report where they talk about how they ensure high levels of encryption for data as it travels from your devices to the cloud as well as how they manage government and third party requests for information. In many places they reiterate that they never sell the information they collect. Why would they? Information is their most valuable asset. It’s what sets them apart from other online services. Selling effective, directed advertising is also what pays for your free Gmail account and your free Google Photos and Google Drive storage. One might argue, as Bob Anderson at Quora does, that they are still making money from your data and therefore it is “selling” but ultimately, that is for you to decide. As with file storage security so goes information privacy. You have to understand what you are using and how it best applies to your lifestyle. All of this incredible convenience, using Google Maps to determine local traffic or find a good coffee shop, being able to control your thermostat with your phone, share your photos with friends, auto fill out forms, save passwords, all of these things and more comes with a price: information for convenience. But let’s think about what is private anymore. Everything is tracked. Almost everywhere you go, if you look up, you will see a camera following your movements. Meaning, without our consent, we give up privacy for implied safety. If you use any points card, be it Air Miles or Aeroplan, your purchases are being tracked. You travel anywhere with your passport it’s tracked. Any transit card, credit card or coffee card is tracked. But there are also laws around how that information can be used. Laws not only for mass surveilance but also data collection. In May, 2018 the EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which highly regulates how businesses can collect, keep and use customer information. Google has been on the front lines making sure they comply with the new rules. Nothing is perfect of course. The internet and many companies these days are global in their reach. GDPR can come into conflict with some country’s laws. Time will tell how this will all pan out. Rather than be annoyed at being asked to accept cookies or receive emails, know that they are the result of organizations trying to protect your information. I’m a great fan of the Terminator movie series. With the advances in AI and Machine Learning, I don’t doubt for a second that Skynet is a possibility. The more information we hand over, the more the systems we automate, the more power we give to objects and devices, the higher the possibility of loss of control. Truly, it is up to us to decide how we want to live. I don’t think the internet is going away but it has become a beast worth reckoning with. You need to determine what you are comfortable with. Be informed and decide accordingly.
Sky and Clouds

How Safe is the Cloud?

Recently, when I have encouraged my friends to back up their smart phone images to the cloud I have met resistance. They are suspicious of this “cloud” thing. They don’t think their images will be secure. This resistance to the cloud could be the result of two things. News coverage of celebrities having their accounts hacked and a lack of understanding of what the cloud is and how it works.

First let’s address this ridiculous word “cloud”.  A friend recently admitted that she couldn’t wrap her mind around this esoteric concept of her images floating around in space. The word doesn’t sell the concept very well. Even the origins of the use of the word are a bit vague. Essentially, the use of the word is the result of computer technicians trying to visually express what the “internet” would look like.

It has been used as a symbol in the Information Technology industry since the 60s but it didn’t really cloud computing illustrationgain mainstream use until the late 90s with the advent of Salesforce and Amazon Web Services.(1)

So the “cloud” means the internet. But where are your images actually stored?

Simply put, when you save your images to the cloud, you use the internet to upload your images to a large room full of computers or servers. Those servers could be located near your home or anywhere a cloud services company such as Google, Amazon, or Apple has server farms or buildings on your continent. These servers hold thousands of terabytes of data from many companies and individuals around the world. They have incredibly sophisticated encryption and back up systems. They are many times more secure than your computer at home. Meaning, having your images stored on an offsite server would mean they would be very secure.

But what if those servers get hacked?

The famous story from 2014 where Apple was “hacked” and Jennifer Lawrence’s personal images were splashed around social media is still prominent in people’s minds. But the industry is addressing this issue.

Apple has stated that they were not hacked but that the accounts were accessed through a process called phishing whereby people are tricked into giving up their passwords via an email scam. In other words, a lack of understanding by the user is what allowed their security to be breached. Which brings us to the essential point.

Nothing in this world is 100% secure. You could save all your photos on your computer hard drive. But your computer could get a virus or have a hard drive failure, or your house could be broken into and your computer stolen. You could save your images to an external hard drive as well. If you keep that hard drive in your house it too could be subject to the same hazards – theft, fire, flooding. You could keep a second hard drive in a bank vault. A good idea but still, that bank is subject to the same risks as your house. Bottom line is there are risks to every place you physically store your precious items.

So when it comes to protecting your images, the cloud is just one of a few solutions. As they say, best not to store all your apples in one basket. We go into this in more detail in this article.

As for the cloud and anything else on the internet, the user must take some responsibility for the security of their data. Understanding the protocols of the cloud services company you use is essential. Yes, once your data is uploaded it is encrypted. But every company uses different standards for how that data is then stored and who has access to it. And simply put, what is free has the least security protocols.

Google and Apple both allow you to personalize your security settings. Amazon Web Services probably has the most customizable services but they will cost a bit more. Most importantly, almost every service now has two-factor authentication and I strongly urge you to set this up on your online accounts like Apple and Google. Two-factor authentication means you sign in with a strong password (not your birthday or your dog’s name) and then you enter a time sensitive number that is sent to your cell phone. It sounds a bit cumbersome but it guarantees that if someone steals your password, they still can’t access your account. And don’t trust any “official looking” emails asking for your passwords!

Insurance companies exist because of fear; fear of the worst case scenario. The question comes down to, how important are your photos to you? When given evacuation notices, one of the things people grab first are their photos. Everything can be replaced except memories.

I’m a photographer. My work is in my photos. But so is my life. I would hate to lose my images. So, I back up my smart phone and camera to my computer. I then make a duplicate of those images to a separate hard drive. That hard drive is held off site. Finally, I save my images to the cloud. It may seem excessive to some but it is peace of mind to me.

Your choice of provider depends on whether you want to view and share your images or just store them off-site. I created this document, Photo Sharing Overview where you can compare their services. 

Further Reading

iCloud Security

Google Drive Security