This past Friday, Facebook rolled out a new feature called Photo Sync. The tool has been in development for awhile, and we knew it was coming – its existence is not a surprise, nor is how it works. What is sort of shocking is how complacent everyone is about it.
Photo Sync is essentially a product that does two things. First, it connects with your smartphone to enable automatic syncing. This means that once it’s turned on, your 20 most recently taken smartphone photos are being pushed to Facebook (and from that point on, every single one you take). No – this doesn’t mean that every photo is being uploaded publicly to Facebook. Instead they’re being uploaded to a new, private storage center that Facebook is giving you, which is the second part. It’s simply like any other cloud hosting service: What’s stored in you Photo Sync folder is private until you make it otherwise, and you have a storage limit of 2 GB.
The optimists (and constant uploaders of photos to Facebook) among us hear all this and think Photo Sync sounds convenient. If you’re going to be pushing your smartphone photos to the social network anyway, Photo Sync inarguably streamlines the process. And you can’t really blame the social network for introducing the feature: Facebook is the largest photo-sharing website in the world (some 300 million photos are being uploaded to the site daily), and as of last year approximately 27 percent of all U.S. photos were being taken with smartphones. Facebook went ahead and put two and two together and created a feature that would leverage our growing interest in mobile photography with our growing interest in sharing our images on Facebook and created a simple, easy, automatic way for us to do it.
But as fate would have it, I’m not an optimist. I’m a pragmatist, and I’m not buying into Photo Sync for a few reasons. Reason number one: Facebook has messed up privacy settings before. Not just Facebook, of course, but many social sites have accidentally made private content public. There was the time that third party apps were accidentally leaking user data, and how gay students were exposed when Facebook’s privacy settings failed. I don’t expect Facebook to be perfect … which is why I won’t be enabling Photo Sync: Because there’s a chance my entire iPhone’s photo gallery could potentially be pushed to the site because of a glitch. The odds of this happening probably aren’t great, but they exist.
Furthermore on this point, Photo Sync could end up annoying the hell out of your friends. You know how you took umpteen photos of your sister’s baby or the handful of the tree outside your house or the 15 of your shoes when you were really bored in class the other day? Well they all go to your storage center, not just the ones you want to share. A couple accidental taps, and all of them get pushed to Facebook. Photo Sync means you no longer decide what gets uploaded to Facebook; it all gets uploaded to Facebook. You just choose what everyone can see.
I contacted Facebook about how they make sure these photos aren’t prematurely pushed live. “The goal of this feature is to sync photos taken on your phone, store them privately, and then choose which ones to share. When you turn on photo syncing, your mobile photos will be saved to a private section of your Facebook Photos that only you can see. From there, you can choose shots to share or send in a private message,” was the official statement I received.
On to reason number two, which is the fact that I still don’t entirely trust the cloud. Sure, I use Dropbox and Google Drive on a daily basis, but generally just to move around copies of articles I’m working on that are also saved to my desktop. It wasn’t that long ago that a company which has heavily invested in cloud support experienced a series of crashes, one of which ended up wiping out customer data. We’ve all experienced hiccups using the cloud: Google Calendar, for all its wonders, can be incredibly unreliable; Amazon’s outages have taken down sites like Reddit and Flipboard; and you can almost feel the Internet grind to a halt when Dropbox is unavailable. If you get comfortable with a feature like Photo Sync and start relying on it and deleting photos from your phone’s gallery (hey, more storage!), were the product to fail it could potentially wipe out some or all of your photos. And Facebook, though increasingly invested in data and cloud infrastructure, is no Amazon or Dropbox, companies with backgrounds in building for this purpose and this purpose alone.
Which brings me to reason number three: Facebook is trying to become a storage hub and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Actually, I am, and I feel not great about it. Facebook recently added a file-sharing feature to its Groups product as well as Dropbox integration. And now, Photo Sync is Facebook’s first tip toe into cloud storage – and there is so much data to be mined in the cloud storage business. A post on Sophos’ Naked Security blog explains it best:
Every photograph synced from your phone will be able to be mined for information by Facebook. Photos taken on mobile devices can include metadata such as the location where the photo was taken – and this could be used to determine where you are, and help Facebook display localized advertising.
Furthermore, Facebook could integrate its facial recognition technology with Photo Sync, analyze your photos to see whose faces it recognizes and automatically tag their names. Over time a comprehensive database of where you have been, and who with, is built up.
Director of policy and advocacy with Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Paul Stephens explains that while most of the concerns over data and cloud systems concern documents and email, there are also issues with photos we should be concerned about. “One of the big risks is that when you leave photos or anything on a server that doesn’t belong to you in the cloud they then become available to government investigators who might want to subpoena that information,” he tells me. “And the government could get that data and the user might not actually know it. When you hold the info yourself, it’s open to subpoena, but you have the ability to defend against it. You have the motivation to keep your information private whereas the company might not have the motivation to keep that private.”
There are also the effects this will have on your data plan and battery life. You can opt for Photo Sync only to upload over Wi-Fi, although that’s still going to eat into your battery. Facebook says it won’t enable the feature when your battery is low, although that’s not very specific. Also, the “only over Wi-Fi” option isn’t the default, and plenty of users will have Photo Sync working and eating into their data plan without knowing it.
I realize this reads like a tirade against Photo Sync – it’s the written equivalent of a grumpy old guy shaking his first. If you’re constantly pushing photos from your phone to Facebook, then by all means, Photo Sync will cut down on the process (although you should be aware of the fact that these photos will stay in your phone’s gallery unless you delete them, as well as the issues with data and battery usage). But the problem remains that Facebook very quietly turned Photo Sync on without much explanation. The feature announcement showed up in a banner on the mobile app where one click enabled it – and that simply isn’t enough for all of the implications that come with using it.
According to Mercury News, Facebook won’t be using the data of private photos you store via Photo Sync. “Facebook said Tuesday that it won’t use data from pictures that are automatically uploaded to users’ private albums on the social network, unless the user shares them.” Which means that unless you push those stored photos live, the metadata is safe. Still, I’d ask you to consider the fact that Photo Sync is put in place in order to encourage users to share more photos, and that means Facebook does have access to more data in the long run. Its data mining intentions aren’t entirely wiped away by the fact that it won’t use private photos for these means.