With its new Photos tool, Google gets another shot at our personal data

Image via Google
Image via Google

I’ll always remember the visual grandeur of my daughter’s college graduation. And so will Google, because I took pictures of the event and posted them on Google Photos.

The search company’s free photo-storage offering has just gotten a major upgrade that could establish it as the first choice for online picture storage. Which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you feel about Google — and about privacy.

Google can use these personal photos­ to cull information about you, learn your likes and dislikes, and perhaps target you with ads.

Its search engine already analyzes the questions we ask, to better target us with advertisements that generate billions in revenue. And its Gmail service analyzes the contents of our personal messages for the same reason.

Now comes Google Photos. It doesn’t just stockpile your pictures. It scans them pixel by pixel, to identify people, places, and objects. Just by looking at your photo album Google could learn where you go and what you do.

The same technology helps Google find out nearly anything it wants to know about you.

Do you have kids? How many? Boys or girls? Where did you go on vacation? Eat at McDonald’s or Five Guys?

The more photos you shoot, the more Google will know.

In an e-mail to me, the company vowed it will not reuse our photos without explicit permission and will not share data collected from them.

Google didn’t say what it will do with the image data.

“We have no monetization plans at this time,” the company said in the e-mail.

But if it’s anything like what it does with the other information it collects on us, I expect Google to use the photo data to target us with advertisements.

Still, it’s a radical new method of mining personal data. And it ought to give us pause. We’ve accepted that our every keystroke is recorded and scrutinized. The more cautious among us understand that our digital photos carry little packets of metadata, revealing when and where they were shot. But soon companies and governments won’t need our camera’s metadata anymore. They’ll find out everything they need to know by just looking at the photos themselves.

slide8b_framedThis could get rather creepy. But for now, it’s more than a little cool.

Here’s what consumers get out of the deal: an easy way to store, share, and manage an unlimited number of photos and videos, without paying a cent — so long as the pictures are a generous 16 megapixels or less. Google’s image-recognition system will let you scour thousands of old photos to quickly find just the ones you want. For now, its search results are hit-or-miss, but already it’s accurate enough to be useful and delightful.

And it goes way beyond rival online image storehouses, such as Apple Inc.’s iCloud.

Google Photos has a facial-recognition feature, to help you quickly find favorite faces. Clicking on an image of my graduating daughter was like switching on a time machine. There she was on college move-in day in 2011, during one of her high school basketball games, and as a grade schooler, smiling up at me from the back seat of the car.

It also recognizes objects in photos and lets you search for them with keywords. For example, I uploaded some photos of cars I took at the International CES show in Las Vegas in January. Then I typed “Volkswagen” in the search window, and up came a VW Golf. I typed “Corvette” and saw a brilliant bronze sports car.

Searches can also be remarkably generic. I typed ­“babies” and up popped my photos of infants and toddlers. “Glasses” got images of me, my kids, and a bunch of other bespectacled friends and colleagues. The word “lake” pointed me to a scene of my wife standing next to a small pond.

It’s easy to see where this could go. If you photograph your spouse and kids frolicking on a beach, Google may deliver ads for swimwear and sunburn cream to websites you visit. Or post pictures of your golden retriever, and maybe the video game app on your iPad shows Google ads for the latest organic dog food. Shoot selfies of you and your buds guzzling beer and eating greasy food, and you might see a video for cholesterol pills the next time you visit YouTube, which is owned by Google.

For now, the service is far from perfect. Many searches produce inaccurate results or none at all; other searches find only a few of the right photos. But in a year or two, Google’s image search will be much improved.

Why do you think the service is free, and with unlimited photo storage? Why are they giving away Google Photos apps for Apple iOS and Android devices? If enough of us install these apps, billions of images will be fed to Google’s massive data centers for analysis. And Google will steadily get better at recognizing these images, like a child learning to recognize Mommy, Daddy, cars, airplanes, and Kim Kardashian.

As Google improves its image recognition, it will add the results to the data it has collected on hundreds of millions of users. It will remember that I took shots of the Vegas Strip, of Thanksgiving dinners in Chicago and the shoreline of Lake Michigan, and the children’s choir at my church. That’s a lot of personal information embedded in a handful of photos. Spread it over a lifetime, and Google will know nearly everything about me.

As humans, we can’t help ourselves. Everything we do throws off vapor trails of information, but until recently it was only possible to capture a few wisps of the data. Google seems determined to grab it all.

I’m inclined to play along, at least for now. Google is better than most companies at revealing what it knows about us, and making it easy for us to delete sensitive information — including the photos themselves. Besides, I rely on the company’s greed. Google probably won’t risk its vast ad revenues by doing something really abusive, like willingly handing over customer data to the National Security Agency.

It’s also marvelous to type “babies” or “picnic” or “graduate” and instantly see what you’re looking for. As long as you don’t mind Google looking over your shoulder.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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