The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From W-2s to nudes, here’s how to hide sensitive photos

Some photos aren’t meant for public consumption. Here’s where to put them.

Not every photo on your phone is intended for public consumption. Here’s how to keep them private. (The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Sangita Rayasam takes a lot of screenshots — mostly of the type of posts and memes that are so horrible that people end up enjoying them.

It’s a genre the 36-year-old digital producer and self-described compulsive poster calls “thanks I hate it,” and their camera roll is full of it. So full that the iPhone photo app sometimes turns the collection of cringeworthy screenshots into a cinematic slide show complete with dramatic music.

It’s ridiculous when it happens, they said. But other out-of-the-blue slide shows make Rayasam pause — shows such as collections of old photos and selfies with their face contoured with makeup and hair silky from keratin treatments. Rayasam came out as nonbinary a few years ago. Seeing a montage of this prior version of themself set to mopey “Sarah McLachlan-style” music reminded them of an “in memoriam” interlude at the Academy Awards, they said.

“It made me feel like I was watching one of those ‘E! True Hollywood’ or VH1 biopics from the early 2000s,” they said.

Our camera rolls contain hundreds of moments and memories — some we want to revisit, others we don’t. Smartphone owners snap an obscene number of photos, about 1.3 trillion this year, the market intelligence firm Rise Above Research estimates. That’s more than 150 photos for every person on earth. Figuring out where to store all those images is challenging enough. But we also have to keep the wrong photo from surfacing at the wrong time.

Maybe you snapped an image of your Social Security card, birth certificate or W-2 form. Maybe you want to keep your kids’ bathtub photos in a safe place. Maybe you’re not quite ready to hit “delete” on those vacation photos with your ex. Or maybe you’re one of the way-too-many people who accidentally showed a sexy photo to a restaurant host while looking for their vaccine cards.

Whatever your inspiration, here’s how to hide sensitive photos from prying eyes and ruthless auto-generated slide shows.

In Google Photos

On the Android 6 operating system or a later version, you can put photos in a folder locked with whatever authentication method you use to unlock your device. Photos in the locked folder won’t show up in search results, albums, cloud transfers or algorithmically generated “memories.” Keep in mind that anyone who can unlock your device can view the folder and its contents.

Here’s how to set it up:

  • Open the Google Photos app on a mobile device.
  • At the bottom of your screen, go to Library -> Utilities. Tap “Set up locked folder.”

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If you use a Pixel 3 phone from Google or a later model, you can save photos directly to the locked folder by opening the camera and tapping Photo Gallery -> Locked Folder in the top right corner.

The “Archive” feature in Google Photos keeps photos out of memories, but not search results or albums. To archive a photo, try tapping “more” (the three little dots near the top) and select “Move to archive.” To find the archive later, go to “Library” at the bottom of your Photos app.

On iOS

Apple also offers a hidden album. Anything you put in it won’t show up in your camera roll, albums, slide shows or widgets. To move a photo to the hidden album, tap on the photo you want and select “Share” (the little box with the arrow) then “Hide.”

To find the hidden album later, open the Photos app, tap “Albums” at the bottom and scroll down to the heading “Utilities.”

Anyone who can unlock your phone can find and look at the hidden album, unless you make it disappear by turning it off. To do so, open the Settings app and scroll until you see the Photos app. Slide off the toggle for “hidden album” so it turns gray.

On a Samsung phone

Certain Samsung models come with a “secure folder” option. To set it up, try opening the Settings app, go to “Biometrics and security” and tap on “Secure folder.” Set up the folder by choosing a method to lock it, such as a PIN or password. This might require signing into your Samsung account.

To put photos in, open the secure folder from your apps screen. Tap “Add files” and select the photos you want.

If you want to hide the secure folder afterward, go to Settings -> Biometrics and security -> Secure folder. Tap the “Show secure folder” slider into the “Off” position and confirm that you want to hide it.

In third-party apps

You could also download a tool from an app store to store private photos.

Secret Photo Vault from the developer Keepsafe lets you put photos behind a PIN code, pattern or face ID. You can also set passwords for individual photo albums within the app.

For photos that are particularly sensitive (or for users who are particularly shady), the app offers what it calls a “decoy vault” connected to a separate passcode. If someone enters that code, they’ll see a totally separate collection of photos.

If you’re willing to spend $39.99 a year, Private Photo Vault from the developer Legendary Software Labs also offers a “decoy” feature, as well as “face down lock” which quickly switches to a different app when you flip your phone face down and “break-in report,” which can capture both the front-facing camera and the device’s location if someone tries unsuccessfully to unlock the app.

Remember: Many third-party utility apps share your data liberally. Both Secret Photo Vault and Private Photo Vault indicate in their privacy policies they can share your data with third parties for advertising. And if you turn on the “break-in report” feature in Private Photo Vault, the app will ask for access to your phone’s exact GPS location, as well.

Both apps are available in the Apple App Store and Google Play. (In the Google store, Secret Photo Vault is also named Private Photo Vault, so both apps appear to have the same name.)

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Should I sync to the cloud?

“Cloud storage” means your photos and videos are sitting on a server somewhere, so they’re accessible from more than one device. Cloud storage providers use security measures such as encryption, but that doesn’t mean nothing can go wrong. Last year, for instance, a California man stole nude photos of women by impersonating an Apple employee and tricking people into handing over their iCloud credentials, the Los Angeles Times reported. It’s also fairly easy to accidentally share photos with other people on your storage plan.

If you’re really worried about keeping photos private, skip the cloud storage for now.

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