The Unseen Cost of Google's New "Free" Photo Service


Is it just me, or does something not seem quite right about Google's new Photos service?

There was quite a bit of talk at Google IO this week about how Google Photos is using Machine Learning to help you to be able to search through your images.  You search for "Cronuts" and voila! Every photo that you have taken of those delectable cronuts that you stood on line hours for will show up!   From Business Insider:

Google uses machine learning to power the scary-accurate image recognition within the Photos app, and based on the demo I’ve seen, it’s incredibly fast and accurate. Other services let you search photos based on when they were taken, where they were taken, and how you’ve tagged them.

But with Photos, you can simply type in the word “pizza,” and any photos you’ve taken of pizza will pop up whether you’ve labeled the pictures or not. If you went rock climbing last summer, you can type in the phrase “rock climbing” to find those images. Google also automatically sorts photos based on these types of phrases in the Categories section. So, all of the photos of any given person will appear in one organized album, all photos of food would be in another, etc.

Google already uses machine learning — a term that refers to a type of algorithm that learns on its own without human intervention — for many of its products, including Google Now, Google Maps, and Search. But now we’re seeing it being applied to photo storage.

Super Cool right?   On the surface, YES!   The amount of computation and engineering that has gone into a product like this is staggering.

But then I had a thought.  (Dangerous, I know.)

Why is it free?

No, seriously.   Why is it free?   Why is Google going to give away terabytes of VERY expensive cloud storage away for free?   Why is Google going to give away use of a photo recognition engine that required that massive engineering effort for free?

Answer?  They aren't.  Of course, YOU won't have to pay a thing for the service.  Google will happily index every photo you take from your smartphone,  apply it's machine learning to it,  and give you an infinite amount of storage for all of those beautiful memories.   What does Google get out of it?

I have a feeling Google is using its "machine learning" to index quite a bit more than most people think.  They say it can tell the difference between palm trees and pizza, and mountains, and people.   If it is really that intelligent will it also be able to tell, based on your photos, what kind of beer you like to drink at a summer barbecue with your friends?   How about if you prefer hot dogs or hamburgers?  Will it be able to tell based on your photos that you like to visit Disney World and go on Carnival Cruises for vacations?  I bet people buying advertising on Google would LOVE to have information like that.

Google has spent years developing applications and services to write up a profile of your online activities and persona.  Google Chrome / Google search track your web browsing habits to deliver you advertising.  Gmail algorithmically scans your email for advertising purposes.  Google Maps uses your direction requests and GPS data to deliver you advertising.  and now our last shred of real life private moments are probably being used to deliver us relevant ads.

It has gotten to the point where Google will now know more about the average Android user than his/her partner does.   The profile they have built on us contains our conversations, our web searches, our travel habits, who our friends are, and now everything we have taken a photo or video of.   Google knows what things we want to keep a memory of.   I don't know about you, but to me, that's creepy.

Tracking my online use was one thing, but somehow knowing that Google is scanning my photos and videos to identify everything in them is a step too far.   It seems today more than ever, that the services Google deliver to us are not really the products they sell.  

We are.