08/31 Update below. This post was originally published on August 28
Note, Locked Folder backup features now officially rolling out, including compatibility with iOS devices and web browsers.
Google is working on an important upgrade to Google Photos that will help users protect their most personal photos and videos from theft or accidental deletion.
The upgrade comes in the form of a new, and much-needed, cloud backup option for Google Photos’ privacy-focused “Locked Folder” feature that lets you hide potentially sensitive content behind a secure passcode.
The potential “Back up Locked Folder” feature has been known about for several months, but now software sleuth AssembleDebug has managed to enable the feature by tinkering with hidden parameters within the Google Photos app, giving us a preview of how the function will operate.
Once the function has been enabled, users will be presented with a screen labeled “Back up Locked Folder” and given the choice to opt in. A toggle switch setting is also available to turn the feature on and off at any time.
AssembleDebug claims the feature is working for them after making the changes, so it’s not known why Google hasn’t yet rolled out the feature. I suspect it’s still undergoing testing at this point.
Why Is Locked Folder Backup So Important?
Currently, contents of the Locked Folder are only stored locally on the user’s device, meaning that all the photos and videos stored inside could be lost irretrievably if the device was stolen or damaged. Moving any images into the Locked Folder deletes them from Google’s cloud storage too, meaning those particular files no-longer have any cloud backup and can’t be seen on other devices.
Even worse, simply deleting and reinstalling the Google Photos app also currently results in the contents of the Locked Folder being permanently deleted. In my opinion, there are simply too many ways users can unwittingly delete important data using the Locked Folder feature as it stands.
The new Back up Locked Folder option will allow you to save your content securely in your Google account alongside your regular photos and videos, allowing you to retrieve your Locked Folder at a later time and restore it to your device. This means the Locked Folder can be used without having to worry about accidental data loss.
If you have a rooted Android device, you can try out the feature for yourself following AssembleDebug’s instructions. However, I would strongly advise against it unless you’re confident you know what you’re doing and are prepared to lose important data.
Note that the ability to edit photos may be lost until an unmodified version of Google Photos is reinstalled. Bear in mind that AssembleDebug claims to have enabled the Locked Folder backup feature accidentally while trying to do something else. Google encrypts its hidden app flag to prevent exactly this sort of tinkering, so it’s not known what other important internal settings might also have been changed in the process.
08/26 Update: The new Google Photos Locked Folder backup feature has now officially started rolling out, and the good news is that iOS and web users can now access the Locked Folder for the first time.
Previously available only on Android handsets, the Google Photos Locked folder can now be accessed from any device where your account is signed in, regardless of platform.
Google has promised “multiple levels of security” are in place to protect these most sensitive files, but note that users can opt to keep their Locked Folders offline if they wish. The Locked Folder can continue to confine files to a single device as before, but be aware that all previous caveats regarding accidental data loss still apply (see original story above).
A new, “simplified and improved”, settings page has also started rolling out, designed to make it easier to navigate via dedicated sections for privacy, backup, sharing and notifications etc.
You can read all about the new update in the official Google Photos Blog, and if you don’t see the option available yet, be patient, as it may take some time for the feature to become available to all users.
08/31 Update: Google has begun updating its official support documentation for the new cloud-based Google Photos Locked Folder feature.
The new documentation provides clear instructions on how to set up and use a backed up Locked Folder on the web, on Android devices, and on iOS devices—and this highlights some important differences in how your sensitive content is protected, depending on the device you use to access it.
If you access Google Photos via an app on your mobile device, your Locked Folder is protected by your device’s screen lock. However, when accessing it via the web, you’ll find it protected by your Google account password instead.
This means anyone who can unlock your phone will also be able to unlock your Locked Folder without having to re-type your Google password, even if you moved your files into it from a web browser on your computer.
You can choose to keep your Locked Folder contents stored on your local device as before, if you wish, without backing it up to the cloud. However, as the new documentation clarifies, you still have the option to back up individual items in the Locked Folder on a file-by-file basis. This means the contents of the locked folder can vary from device to device.
Not everyone has access to Locked Folder backup yet, but the fact that Google has already updated the relevant support documentation suggests that all Google accounts will be getting the feature soon. Note that you’ll need to be running at least Android version 6 or iOS version 15 to use the Locked Folder feature on your device.
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