The Stack Archive

Google continues to upload and analyse photos of ex-users of its Photos app

Tue 14 Jul 2015

A Nashville journalist has brought to light that uninstalling Google’s Photos app will not stop the upload and analysis of photos taken when it was present on an Android phone.a month after he uninstalled the Photos app from his Android smartphone Nashville Business Journal writer David Arnott was surprised and shocked to discover older photos, including images of his young family, still available via the web-facing portion of the Photos environment, “grouped together by Google’s facial-recognition technology”.

Arnott made the discovery by giving the app a second chance five weeks after he had originally deleted it:

‘Instead of my pair of test photos, I saw hundreds of images. They weren’t synced from my phone in that moment, because I always delete photos from my device once they’ve been uploaded. My phone must have been uploading pictures to Google Photos even though I didn’t even have Google Photos on my phone,’

Upon enquiring about the matter, the journalist was told by Google: ‘The backup was as intended,’. Arnott was instructed to change settings in Google Play in order to prevent the remnant functionality. The Register were able to get a more substantial response from Mountain View:

‘Some users have uninstalled the Photos app on Android without realising backup as an Android service is still enabled. This is something we are committed to resolving. We are working to make the messaging clearer as well as provide users who uninstall the Photos app an easy way to also disable backup,’

The photos in question were not publicly accessible due to the settings that Arnott had applied to the sharing of them, but Arnott was not placated by the fact:

‘In my personal case, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that Google had access to pictures of my daughter and used that access to develop information, without my knowledge, about what she looks like and where she spends time. For the more than 10 million people who have Google Photos on their phones, how many sexting images has Google obtained without users’ knowledge? How many people have been photographed and now subjected to Google’s recognition technology without the photographer’s knowledge?’

Google Photos was spun off in May from the photo storage functionality in Google Plus, which had failed to divert adequate loyalty from Facebook’s own offerings in photo storage (and, for that matter, its own interest in facial recognition).

The new Photos service – a well-received refugee from the unintended laboratory that was G+ in its earlier days – was lauded by Re/Code and The Verge on launch, with the latter claiming that it made Google a serious player in the online photo storage arena.

Facebook itself was heavily criticised for not permitting users to completely and definitively delete their own user profiles in the early years, to the point where it now has to address the ‘myth’ of Facebook’s elephant-like memory.

To be fair, Google has this year optimised and made more transparent its own security and privacy settings for users – whether or not one ascribes this to a continuing mission to not be evil, or a fear of EU sanctions. It seems that the Photos app simply has a hastily-considered uninstall routine, though leaving behind sizeable preferences is a legacy desktop-machine practice that’s little-emulated in the smartphone sphere due to the possible consequences on local resources.

Newer versions of Android smartphones are pre-installing Photos, in distinction from the earlier model that the Nashville journalist installed the app onto. Though it may indeed be more difficult to remove a ‘baked’ app, at least the problem is in the public spotlight.


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