Does Google Photos Backup Even When Uninstalled?

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Recently, there’s been a flurry of discussion about Google surreptitiously backing your photos up to the cloud without your knowledge, eating through mobile data plans and causing some users to incur overage charges.

So, are these assertions true?

Sort of… But it’s not so much nefarious as it is poor design choice.

What’s going on?

Well, those astute users of Android will notice that if they open the Google Photos app and go to Settings, there will be a number of options, one of which is “Back up & sync.

Google Photos Settings

“Settings” from within Google Photos app

Google Photos Backup

“Google Photos Backup” from within Google Settings app

If you click on that option, an app transition occurs—you are taken from the “Settings” page in the Google Photos app to the “Google Photos Backup” page in the Google Settings app.

Notably, Google Photos Backup is a part of Google Settings; it has nothing, at all, to do with the actual Google Photos app.

…What?

Yes, Google Photos Backup is actually part of Google Play services, not the Google Photos app. The much-advertised cloud backup feature of Google Photos is actually separate from Google Photos, itself. That means that you can take advantage of Google’s Photo Backup feature without the Google Photos app actually being installed, and all your photos will still show up on photos.google.com. Conversely, you can turn off the Google Photos Backup feature within the Google Settings app (also accessible, as mentioned above, from within the Google Photos app) whilst still taking advantage of the offline functionality of the Google Photos app.

I think I get it…

So for a quick experiment, I took a few pictures with the following settings:

  1. Google Photos uninstalled & Google Photos Backup ON
  2. Google Photos uninstalled & Google Photos Backup OFF
  3. Google Photos installed & Google Photos Backup OFF

Screenshot_2015-07-13-13-42-46

I started with both the Google Photos app installed and the Google Photos Backup feature turned on. I uninstalled Google Photos, and I took a picture. The picture uploaded; I could see it on photos.google.com.

Then I went to the Google Settings app, clicked on the Google Photos Backup item, and turned off photo backups. Google warned me:

Any photos & videos taken while Auto Backup is turned off will be backed up if and when you turn it back on.

I took a picture. That picture did not upload.

Then, I re-installed Google Photos, ran through the first-run tutorials (making sure I didn’t accidentally enable any “Auto Backup” features), and I took another picture. It also did not upload.

Finally, I went to the Google Settings app and turned the Google Photos Backup option to ON. Instantly, both pictures that I took with Photo Backup turned OFF—with and without Google Photos installed—now uploaded.

Conclusions

So, Google hasn’t done a very good job explaining the Google Photos Backup feature to end-users. If you don’t want your photos to automatically backup to Google’s cloud, you need to go to your Google Settings app and disable the Google Photo Backup feature. The actual Google Photos app has nothing to do with it—in fact, you can keep it installed if you like its functionality. And if you ever turn Google Photos Backup to ON in the future, all of your photos—including ones you took prior—will be uploaded to Google’s cloud storage.

Oh, and by the way, toggling the Photo Backup feature on/off will reset your settings for “Upload size” (it defaults to Original instead of High quality). So if you want to take advantage of Google Photo’s unlimited cloud storage (the service, not the app), don’t forget to re-pick the “High quality” setting.

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