Can Google Photos keep your digital memories safe?

Manufacturers of smartphones are heavily promoting the ability of their devices to capture high quality images, and in fairness they do so with good reason. The quality of photos and the ease with which they can be taken and shared on mobile devices is only set to increase, and consequently so is the sheer quantity of photos that we take. Take a quick scroll down any Facebook newsfeed and you will instantly come across countless photos of holidays, nights out, family pets and so much more – all taken and shared via mobile.

It is therefore undeniable that mobile devices have become the dominant platform upon which to take photos, but the issue that will present itself to everyone before long is where do we store all these photos?

While the rising quality of mobile images is feeding our obsession with photographing everything that we do, it also means that photos are becoming larger and that consumers must therefore look for storage options beyond that of just a smartphone if they are to preserve these growing collections of treasured digital memories. One such option is Google Photos, a new service launched by Google just last month, in an attempt to increase its presence in the cloud storage arena.

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An app that automatically backs up all photos on a device to the user’s Google Drive account, Google Photos is available on Android and iOS devices, as well as via web browsers, which opens it up to a vast number of potential users. The price is also very attractive, with users receiving the first 15GB of storage for free and then having the option of buying extra instalments of 100GB for $1.99. With the average smartphone photo weighing in at 2MB, the initial 15GB of free storage equates to around 7,500 photos.

While $1.99 per extra 100GB may appear very reasonable to the average consumer who would be hard-pushed to take more than a thousand photos over an entire year, the storage cost could very quickly add up for a photography enthusiast who needs somewhere to store a vast number of images. To purchase an extra terabyte per month would equate to $240 annually, and for what is ultimately vanilla storage with no real safety or security guarantees.  In my view this is quite expensive.

However, the biggest concern for me is the question of just how long does Google guarantee my photos will be safe for. Digital degradation is a very real threat that will eventually impact all documents if they are not correctly protected, and I am concerned about how comprehensive Google’s preservation services can be when thousands of users are storing 7,500 photos each at zero cost.

Google has not explicitly claimed that this package is intended as a long-term archiving service, but the implications of a location to safely store large numbers of photos for the future speak for themselves.

I also have doubts about the ‘organisational’ feature within Google Photos. The app has a function that organises photos by recognising faces and locations, and so could in theory create a digital ‘photobook’ of a family day out to the beach. 

The fact that Google is arranging and manipulating your photos could in fact be construed as a risk to the integrity of the original images, which could be damaged as they are played around with. It is unlikely that there will be any active checks that the original photo remains unchanged with all these processes being conducted on it. 

Rest assured, there are many positives to the service offered by Google Photos if users take it solely for what it is, a free storage platform and not a long-term archiving solution. The ability to store 15GB worth of images at no cost allows you to economically free up storage space in your device for other files without deleting your photos. However, there is no guarantee around the security or long-term integrity of the images that you store.  

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As a result, I feel that this service is not a safe haven for your irreplaceable images and memories and in the long run will prove to offer little more than a false sense of security. The only way to ensure beyond a doubt that your digital materials will be safe for the future is by storing them in a professionally managed archiving solution, with a regulated guarantee that the data will be preserved in such a way that it can be returned 10, 25 or 50 years from now in exactly the same way that it was deposited.

In short, I believe Google Photos is a good place to put your pictures, but I wouldn’t leave them there for eternity if you want your descendants to have access to your precious memories in years to come.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...