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Google: We accidentally sent your private videos to strangers

Some users have received notifications over email from Google alerting them to a “technical issue” that affected Google Photo’s Takeout service between the 21st of November 2019 and the 25th of November 2019. The issue has since been fixed, but despite Google’s casual tone in explaining the issue, it still sounds pretty scary.

According to users who uploaded screenshots of the email, Google said this:

“Unfortunately, during this time, some videos in Google Photos were incorrectly exported to unrelated users’ archives. One or more videos in your Google Photos account was affected by this issue.”

Basically, a small number of users have received private videos that didn’t belong to them, although Google doesn’t specify the number of users in the email. According to a report from 9to5Google, less than 0.01% of users were affected—that said, the Google user base is huge (reportedly more than 1 billion), so even a small percentage could still be significant.

Now that the issue has been “resolved”, Google is apologising for the issue. In a statement to 9to5Google:

“We are notifying people about a bug that may have affected users who used Google Takeout to export their Google Photos content between November 21 and November 25. These users may have received either an incomplete archive, or videos—not photos—that were not theirs. We fixed the underlying issue and have conducted an in-depth analysis to help prevent this from ever happening again. We are very sorry this happened.”

How did it happen?

In a nutshell, some videos on Google Photos were shared to random users who were also downloading data via Google Takeout. Basically, a small percentage of videos were incorrectly exported to other users’ archives due to an error.

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This means that certain users downloaded Google Photos archives with videos from strangers included in their archive—Google says that you should delete that export, and perform another export now that the issue has been fixed.

While Google has apologised for the issue above, the seriousness of the problem shouldn’t be disregarded. Despite the seemingly nonchalant tone of the email, this is a serious mistake by Google—technical error or not. It’s one thing to lose data backed up in the cloud, but it’s quite another to have it incorrectly exported to a total strangers’ backup.

Perhaps this lends weight to the argument that you shouldn’t really store important information or media in the cloud. Personally, I’ve always stored all of my images and videos in various cloud solutions, but now, perhaps I’ll need to reconsider that decision.