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The fight for photo storage is a fight over trust

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If you glanced at The Verge last week, you probably heard the news: Google has a new Photos service. It’s a big product push, a good solution to a hard problem. But now that Google has met the formidable product challenge, there's a more complicated challenge on the horizon. Photos are intensely personal, and signing onto a service like Photos means handing over tens of thousands of them.

As Google looks to promote its big new product, that raises a serious question: do you trust Google with your photos? Do you trust anyone with them? Google isn’t alone in trying to solve the photo-sharing puzzle, and it’s likely to have plenty of competition in the years to come. Photos' interface is impressive, but it's nothing that couldn't be copied by teams at Apple or Microsoft. The scope of the storage is impressive too, but well within reach for any company running its own server farms. But as the world’s largest tech companies look to take over your camera roll, the rarest commodity may be trust.

Google is on its best behavior

The question was clearly on Googlers' minds during I/O, and the company has done a lot in an effort to make Photos trustworthy. The opt-out provisions are right up front: if you aren't comfortable with facial recognition, location tracking, or social sharing, they're all simple to turn off. Photos chief Anil Sabharwal described his goal as to "start on a foundation of trust." In practical terms, this means the team is on its best behavior, aware that any overreach would mean a significant setback for Photos. The effort to build trust in Google’s services extends beyond photos: yesterday, Google announced a new Privacy Settings hub where users can see exactly what information they're giving away on various Google services.

It's a serious effort, and Google deserves credit for it — but it hasn’t convinced everyone. After the announcement, The Verge's own Thomas Ricker was still unsure, in part because Google looks through every image you upload as part of its automatic scan, which is necessary to categorize the photos by content. There’s no way to opt out: it's central to the way Photos approaches organization, and the service doesn't make sense without it. At the same time, if you're using Photos to keep track of legal documents or more sensitive pictures, it's easy to see why that might make you nervous. In that case, the answer is simple enough: keep the sensitive stuff in a local hard drive while Google handles your everyday snaps. But even there, Photos’ biggest limitation isn’t how much it can do, but how much we can trust it.

That's also true for Google's competitors. Facebook handles more photos than any other company in the world, and it's easy to imagine something similar to Google Photos in their future. The basic Facebook already has a deep learning program to rival Google, so even the algorithmic scanning would be within reach. As with Google, the biggest challenge would be trust. Would you trust Facebook not to pop your photos into a friend’s feed without telling you? If you wanted a photo to stay private, would you trust Facebook to keep it that way?

The other possible spoiler is Apple, where the combination of iPhoto and iCloud is already a reasonable alternative to Photos. Unlike Google, Apple isn't in the advertising business (a fact they're not shy about mentioning), which should give them some competitive advantage. Part of the concern for companies like Google and Facebook is that any data collected will ultimately be used for ad targeting, as with Android’s location tracking data for Facebook’s interest graph — but that’s not a concern for Apple. The company doesn’t do ad targeting, and they aren’t about to start. Unfortunately, Apple’s photo system is all built on top of iCloud, which has a long history of security failures and general service issues. The massive leak of celebrity photos in September was a particularly damaging reminder, and one Apple still hasn't lived down.

We've only seen the very beginning of this fight, and it's far too early to argue that Google will end up as the winner. But what we've seen so far suggests they'll be competing on unusual territory. Unlike technical expertise or intuitive design, trust draws on the past, and it can be difficult to know how much a company has until they need it. Have Google’s transparency efforts been enough to overcome any lingering PRISM doubts? Have we forgiven Buzz, or at least forgotten about it? As users approach Photos, this may be the moment we find out.