As planned, I'm adding a new post to my blog. What wasn't planned is today's topic, brought to you courtesy of Adobe's latest announcement. I've taken a step back to collect my thoughts before plunging into this piece, but I can't deny that I am profoundly disturbed by where Adobe is now heading. The stage has been set for some time, but I didn't imagine it would escalate as it has so quickly.
For those as yet unaware, Adobe has unveiled a new product called Lightroom CC. Alongside some potentially useful features, and stated performance improvements, Lightroom CC introduces one major change to your photo editing workflow: All of your photos are now backed up to the cloud so they can be accessed across multiple devices. (The precursor to this change is already present in the current Lightroom, where Lightroom Mobile by default syncs to your desktop copy of Lightroom. You can turn this feature off, as I have done.) Adobe says that you can continue to use the older version of Lightroom - now dubbed "Classic" - that doesn't make use of cloud syncing.
At first blush, this sounds like a great idea. It means photographers can make edits using the mobile app, a laptop, or a desktop computer, with those changes reflected more or less immediately on all your other devices. How convenient is that!? For those without an existing backup strategy (it's hard to believe such people still exist in 2017), having your data seamlessly backed up to Adobe's cloud may offer some peace of mind that a copy of your photos exists out there... somewhere. Adobe has made it crystal clear that disabling this cloud synchronization, will not be an option for Lightroom CC users.
There are, however, some significant downsides to this arrangement. Many of us don't necessarily want or need a copy of our data stored somewhere outside of our immediate control. Adobe's hard-line cloud policy feels like a solution in need of a problem. By no means am I a heavy hitter, and I aggressively prune rejected photos, but my own photo library is now quickly approaching 2 TB. No doubt there are many photographers for whom that is a laughably small figure. Considering that my ISP caps data usage at 500 GB a month, it would take about 4 months to fully sync my existing library, which is assuming I don't also want to use the internet for anything else - such as my more comprehensive Carbonite backup, email, web browsing, YouTube, Netflix, etc.
Since I am already using an encrypted, cloud-based backup solution as one of several backups, I have no need or desire for additional offsite storage and the added bandwidth it would require. As I mostly reserve mobile editing for mobile photos, and I'm content to split my photo library between a laptop and a desktop PC, I'm not looking to synchronize anything. Years spent in IT have taught me to be wary of automated processes over which I don't have direct control.
Those are some of the practical bandwidth considerations, but there's more to consider. First of all, will Adobe be using encryption to transfer data between various devices? Maybe so, but it hasn't been spelled out on their FAQ page. Who else will have access to your data on their servers - Adobe employees, their business partners, Microsoft, Apple, the NSA? How will that data be used once it's "safely" backed up to the cloud? What happens if a software bug or virus deletes not only your cloud-stored images, but deletes or corrupts your local copies? Will Adobe assume financial liability if a hacker breaks into their system and exposes private content or information to the outside world?
In recent years, we've seen major hacks affecting top-tier organizations in the federal government, major hotel chains, not to mention the financial and medical fields. Centralizing data offers conveniences, but is also fraught with risk brought about by human failure - whether that's not observing best security practices, failing to patch software or employees duped by skillful social engineering. Photos may not have quite the cash value of social security numbers, but an interested party could learn a lot about you through your photographs. If I choose to share select photos on social media, that's my prerogative. Imagine if ALL of your photos were suddenly shared with interested parties - whether by design, or by accidental release?
If you think that Adobe is offering to store untold petabytes of data for more than 10 million subscribers simply to ease your workflow, then you're incredibly naive. Businesses don't store this volume of user data just to add value to your experience; they're getting something out of it. Storage and processing time isn't free. The monthly fee they currently charge for your Adobe CC subscription isn't likely to cover the enormous storage costs involved with Lightroom CC. It does appear they will charge subscribers extra for data used beyond 20 GB, (currently $55 or $65 for up to 100 GB), although it's unclear how they manage data beyond those rather paltry limits. Even a modest 20 GB adds up quickly with 10+ million users.
As the popular adage goes, when the service is free, you are the product. Unless there's a corresponding increase in your subscription fee, this development falls into the same category. Somebody has to pay for the immense server farms that Adobe will need to house staggering quantities of data.
We'll never be told exactly how our photos are being used, but it's reasonable to assume that some level of data mining is happening. Adobe wants to monetize that data in one fashion or another. Clearly, Adobe would run afoul of copyright law if they outright tried to sell your photos, so that's not going to happen. The issues at stake are significantly larger than somebody making a few bucks from my work. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to think of parties that might find such a massive image database of immense value.
We know that Adobe, at a minimum, is partnering with Microsoft - another big player with a similarly vested interest in your use of their products. Google has long been at this task, and features like facial recognition can be matched up to your interests, your friends, where you've traveled, etc. - all of which can be used to build a fairly complete and intimate profile of your life. Remember: Adobe states that ALL of your photos will be sent to their cloud; you don't get to hold some back if you've imported them into Lightroom.
If Adobe didn't have a vested financial interest in storing your data, then they could easily provide a toggle switch that turns this feature off - just like you can do with current versions of Lightroom for the mobile syncing option. I suspect that feature was a bit of a trial run, to see how well they could handle the network traffic. At any rate, this option has been completely removed from their newest product. It's as if they're saying, "We are going to use your data to make money, at your own expense, and we really don't care if you like it or not."
"Hold up," you say! "Isn't Adobe making two products available?" Why yes, they are. "So if you don't like this new CC offering, why not just use Lightroom Classic and shut up about it? Nobody's making you store your stuff in the cloud!" And that's true. Sort of. For now, at any rate.
Even as Adobe has for several years sold a standalone version of Lightroom alongside their CC subscription, until today's announcement, the Classic option will undoubtedly have an expiration date. We don't know when, but it's a virtual certainty that Adobe will eventually announce they are discontinuing support for Lightroom Classic. When they decide to turn it off, it will cease to function altogether (unlike the standalone versions). It doesn't make sense for Adobe to provide support for two nearly identical product lines indefinitely. By offering LR Classic, they are able to dull the impact of their announcement, and deflect criticism from users like me. Give it a year, maybe three, and there will only be one Lightroom product and you'll have no choice but to switch to another editing program or migrate to the cloud version.
It's too early to say for sure what I will do with respect to my own workflow. For the time being, I am deeply invested in the use of Adobe's products (and third party plugins). and certainly can't afford to jump ship on a whim. I'll stick with LR Classic for the time being. Down the road, I'll likely start looking for a suitable alternative that I can purchase outright and which lets me retain full control of my work.
All we need to make so many photographers happy, Adobe, is a simple toggle switch in Lightroom CC. How about it?