More than a billion people upload and store billions of pictures and videos to Google Photos every year. The process is likely to be similar for many: You take some photos with your phone and they’re automatically uploaded to Google’s cloud service. The photos join a constantly updating stream of data about life and you might pick the best photo and share it on WhatsApp or Instagram and then never think about the rest.
However, you shouldn’t do this. Uploading thousands of photos and not sorting or managing them creates a series of privacy risks and makes it impossible for you to maintain your collection in the future. It’s time to stop hoarding information before it spirals out of control.
In the past six weeks, I’ve spent around a dozen hours deleting thousands of photos from my Google Photos account. During the process—and thousands of “delete” taps—three things stood out: My photos collection unknowingly includes a lot of sensitive personal information (both about me and others); I don’t need to keep so many photos; and wrestling my collection into shape frees up a lot of space in my Google account.
My photo archive goes back to the early 2000s when everything was captured using an eight-megapixel digital camera. There are tens of thousands of photos—it’s impossible to estimate how many—and all of them are handled by Google. Initially stored on CDs, the photos were moved to Flickr before it limited collections to 1,000 images, and then eventually made their way to Google Photos around 2018. I began paying for more storage when Google limited accounts to 15 gigabytes.
A variety of pictures are included in the collection, including family holiday photos and selfies. I am not the only one taking more photos. Since phone cameras have improved and cloud storage has become seemingly unlimited, I seem to take more photos every year. Google Photos holds an unfathomable amount of information about us all: by 2020, the company said it would store 4 trillion photos, and that 28 billion new photos and videos would be uploaded each week.
Deleting photos from an iPad is as easy as scrolling through an endless list of images. Using advanced features such as natural language processing and tagging, I was able to eliminate all the duplicates with just one pass.
But there were plenty of images that should never have been kept in the first place. For years, I had been keeping photos and screenshots of passport information–my own and those of friends who had sent me the details for booking trips. I found the detailed data needed to log into my bank account, people’s addresses, their phone numbers, and personal email addresses. The list goes on: NSFW photos taken years ago, screenshots from embarrassing conversations, notebook images from sensitive meetings years ago, common running routes and travel directions old habits that were all just stored in my digital photo collection, dozens of snapshots with all sorts of private data that I forgot about once they weren’t useful anymore.
The ever-expanding cloud storage makes it easy to keep taking photos and adding them to the pile, but there are other reasons to do so. I have found it easier to find specific events and the best photos from them after sorting them. It might have been too daunting to even begin if I had waited another few years. I may have taken 20,000 to 40,000 more photos in another ten years. Now I plan to sort my most recent photos once a year.