Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Privacy Implications of Live Photos

Mark Hurst:

When you tap the circle on the bottom of the screen to take the photo, and you hear the artificial “click-shh” shutter sound, Apple stores a three-second video: 1.5 seconds of video before you tapped the button, and 1.5 seconds after you tapped it. That’s video and audio.


Millions of people around the world are taking videos when they think they’re taking photos. And millions more, posing for the camera, assume they’ll appear in a photo, but they’re actually in a video, including sound, before and after the shutter goes off.

At least you can now use Settings ‣ Camera ‣ Preserve Settings ‣ Live Photo so that it remembers to stay off, but:

Apple’s world-famous UI design team wants to make sure you understand: if you want Live Photos permanently turned OFF, you must have Live Photo set to ON.

He cynically connects this to revenue:

Activating (and automatically re-activating) Live Photos ensures that Apple devices will use the most possible data: videos, after all, take up a lot more space than photos.

And even if someone has turned off iCloud hosting, the extra use of data ensures that Apple will be able to issue that glorious warning message as soon as possible: “Your iPhone is running out of space.” By which Apple means: buy an even bigger overpriced device.

This could also be explained by Apple wanting users to be able to take advantage of a new feature that they may not be aware of. There is certainly some logic to recording the most data possible since otherwise the opportunity will be gone forever, whereas it can always be pruned later. As far as I know, though, Apple does not provide a way for you to see how much extra space is being used by Live Photos, nor a way to remove the video and audio data in bulk.

And there are also privacy implications because Live Photos defaults to on, most users don’t know how to turn it off, and all of this unexpected audio is stored, not end-to-end encrypted, on Apple’s iCloud servers (in iCloud Photo Library or iCloud Backup).

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I understand erring on the side of turning Live Photos on. I always kept Live Photos turned off because I thought it was a waste of storage space. After a death in the family, I deeply regret not having it on for the past few years since all of those moments that seemed inconsequential were actually deeply important.

I suppose this could be slightly concerning, but this guy's rhetoric is wayyyyy over the top. He's basically accusing Apple of intentionally deceiving people into unknowingly taking Live Photos and making it as hard as possible to turn off just so they can rake in more iCloud storage revenue? WTF.

That conspiracy theory is quite something. Live Photos is the kind of feature that, if off by default, most people will assume it doesn't exist. At all. They'll never think of "hey, what if this still picture I took automatically came with a small movie clip?", because why would they? Cameras never worked like that. In fact, with acquaintances of mine, even when they had Live Photo turned on (because it's the default), and when they had a phone with 3D Touch, they had absolutely no idea this was a thing that exists, and that recent photos of theirs had a little video attached. (I'm not saying Apple invented this feature. I believe… Nokia? HTC? had something similar a few years earlier.)

So if anything, Apple needs to double down on surfacing features like this more. Which is tricky — the Camera app, IMO, is already quite a monstrosity.

The "should a UI element that doubles as a toggle show its current state, or the state you'd achieve by tapping it?" discussion is interesting, though. Gruber got into that last year:

(I don't necessarily agree with him that Facebook's choice is "wrong". It is, of course, wrong in the context: apps should behave the way the platform does. But globally speaking, I can see the argument for either choices.)

I do think the "Preserve Settings" screen needs to be rethought as "Defaults for New Pictures" or something, with everything negated. The implied double negation in that UI is bad.

A toggle in itself should clearly indicate wether it's on or off. That's it. Then it's up to the UI text to inform the user what they are turning on or off.

In this case it's perfectly clear, and does what it should. As long as people read the very text underneath the toggle, which could be a bit more legible in my opinion.

Maybe it's an example of inside out perspective but they all appear to be toggles that let you decide if settings are preserved from session to session. And in that case I can't think of a better label.

So, right now the interface says this
* You are on the screen where you decide what settings that should be preserved from session to session.
* You have selected to preserve your setting for the Live Photos option

And yet they default to recording video at 1080@30. They could sell six times as much storage if they changed it to 4k@60. I’m sure most people never change the default, and actual video outsizes Live Photos significantly.

Also, they could just store them as JPEG instead of HEIC.

Stupid take.

@Patrick, a very interesting viewpoint and I sincerely offer my condolences for your loss. I would still prefer the simplicity of photos being photos and videos being videos. It makes the intent much clearer when capturing other people and also saves space on my devices when I truly only want a still image captured. As such, I would prefer the feature to be opt-in if possible.

@Sören, yes, I think HTC may have done this feature first. Do not remember if Nokia had a similar one. My last Nokia was an N8, fabulous phone with good build quality, large number of connections, and a fantastic camera. Wish I still had it honestly. I also kind of wish I had picked up a Nokia 808 Pureview back in the day.

@ Kristoffer: it's not that the wording is logically incorrect. It's that 1) it's not the most obvious thing that screen would do, and 2) most people never read all that text. That's what makes it bad UI. You can write lengthy descriptions all you want, but the more copy you have, the less likely it is someone will read much less understand that.

Users will assume disabling the Live Photo toggle on this screen disables Live Photo. Yes, it's clear from the context that it doesn't do that, but it's not at all clear from the UI element itself.

In addition to negating that entire UI (see above; make the heading "Defaults for New Pictures" or whatever), I would change some of those toggle to "radio buttons" (table views with a single ticked option). For example, change Camera Mode to:

Camera Mode

(•) Automatically reset to Photo
( ) Preserve last mode, such as Video

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