It’s almost hard to believe this is happening again, but Pixel users are reporting that an OS update has locked them out of their phones’ internal storage, causing app crashes, non-functional phones, and a real possibility of data loss. Over in the Google Pixel subreddit, user “Liv-Lyf” compiled a dozen posts that complain of an “internal storage access issue” and blame the January 2024 Google Play system update.
In October, Pixel phones faced a nightmare storage bug that caused bootlooping, inaccessible devices, and data loss. The recent post says, “The symptoms are all the same” as that October bug, with “internal storage not getting mounted, camera crashes, Files app shows no files, screenshots not getting saved, internal storage shows up empty in ADB Shell, etc.” When asked for a comment, Google told Ars, “We’re aware of this issue and are looking into it,” and a Google rep posted effectively the same statement in the comments.
In the October bug, users were locked out of their system storage due to a strange permissions issue. Having a phone try to run without any user access to your own storage is a mess. It breaks the camera and screenshots because you can’t write media. File Managers read “0 bytes” for every file and folder. Nothing works over USB, and some phones, understandably, just fail to boot. The issue in October arrived as part of the initial Android 14 release and only affected devices that had multiple users set up.
Picking through the posts, it’s unclear if there’s a certain type of user that should be more wary of the January 2024 Google Play update. Some users say they haven’t enabled the multiple-user functionality, but several mention having a work profile enabled. Work Profiles aren’t quite “multiple users,” but the system leverages a lot of multi-user features to let users have duplicate “personal” and “work” copies of the same apps. Many users don’t say if they have a work profile or not.
The “January 2024 Google Play system update” isn’t the usual OTA system update but is a Project Mainline or APEX module. These take core system components and wrap them up into easily distributable packaging where they can be delivered via the Play Store, much like an app, but with way more permissions (only Google can make Play system updates). Google posts release notes for Play system updates, and there’s nothing in the January 2024 update that jumps out as the potential cause of a storage access problem. You can check your current version on a Pixel phone by going to Settings, Security & Privacy, then “System & updates.” At the bottom, you’ll see a month and year for your “Google Play system update” level. DO NOT tap on this section because that will bring up the update screen.
Google’s “we’re looking into it” statement doesn’t give users much guidance on how they should deal with this in the meantime. A good first step, at any time, is to ensure you have backups of all your important phone data. Obviously, avoiding the January 2024 Google Play system update is recommended for now, but I don’t think there’s a way for users to do that. Google Play system updates don’t offer users any controls, so you’re mostly hoping an automatic update doesn’t brick your phone. The good news is that the Google Play system often fails to check for updates. They get installed on reboot, so try not to power cycle your phone. Disabling a work profile and any other multi-user features sounds like a good idea if you can manage that. There are instructions here.