Who Owns Your Photos?

What’s in your phone’s photo galleries? Probably some pictures of your children, a few shots of what you had for dinner at a nice restaurant, maybe you standing in front of the Washington Monument with a silly grin on your face. You might think nobody outside your family cares about those photos. That’s where you’re wrong.

In the age of digital advertising, targeting ever-narrower user segments has become the key to ensuring that ad money is well spent and generates a return. And for some technology companies, that now means sifting through the photos on your phone.

One startup, called Pixoneye, has pioneered the analysis of personal photos (and videos) on smartphones in a technology that could be viewed as creepy or magnificent (or both). Essentially, the idea is to use “patent-pending image understanding capabilities” to serve up ads based on your interests as indicated by your photos.

“We let our customers in on their customers’ personal life stories by combining image understanding capabilities with artificial intelligence on any mobile device’s photo and video galleries,” according to the company’s summary statement on Collider, a startup accelerator in London.

As in all digital advertising, the goal is to increase the number of ad clicks. It’s a lucrative opportunity, given that the global mobile advertising market will exceed $100 billion in 2016 and account for some 50% of all digital advertising spending, according to eMarketer. And consider that 69% of Facebook’s over $3 billion in advertising revenue in Q1 2015 came just from mobile ads — double the previous year.

You might think your personal photos are confidential. But you’d be wrong. According to what Pixoneye told us, approximately 90% of the apps one downloads to a smartphone ask the user to consent to allow the app to temporarily upload and analyze the user’s photos, as long as those photos are deleted after the analysis is completed. Pixoneye doesn’t keep anybody’s photos; it just analyzes them and draws certain conclusions relevant to advertisers. (The company is still in stealth mode and doesn’t disclose much about its technology or product.)

Pixoneye faces at least two huge hurdles: Privacy and Google.

Is it right to go through a person’s photos? Tim Cook apparently doesn’t think so.  According to TechCrunch, the Apple CEO, speaking at an event for the Electronic Privacy Information Center on June 1, said many of the most well-known businesses in Silicon Valley are “gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it.”

“We believe the customer should be in control of their own information,” he added. “You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.”

One of those free services, and certainly a competitive threat to Pixoneye, is Google, which just remodeled its photo product. If offers unlimited cloud storage on Google Photos, and it too has technology to analyze users’ photos. It is likely not a coincidence that it also launched a centralized privacy dashboard.

Pixoneye may only have a few thousand in seed capital, according to CrunchBase, as well as a relatively tiny $4.5 million valuation from AngelList. But it’s already working with ad firms Ogilvy, Dunnhumby and Havas to improve its product, according to Marketing Magazine. And this spring, it won Collider’s demo day. Its Israeli team includes PhDs in image recognition technology. It probably benefits from the world-leading image analysis capabilities developed over many years by the Israeli military. Pixoneye says its goal is a “real-time personalization solution on mobile that will allow any company to understand the true and personal story of their customers in an automated and simple way.”

Google has acquired at least one successful Israeli company, Waze. We think we know how this movie ends. Google either acquires Pixoneye or builds the technology itself. Then Google and Apple will meet in the town square, six-guns blazing, for a battle royal over privacy. It should be a good fight. We’re going to bring our camera.