What keeps me up: Google Cloud Print

Google hopes to make printing from anywhere and any application — including “web apps” — simple using Google Cloud Print.  Printing from a browser typically includes many things that clutter the printout such as navigation bars and advertisements.  In the case of web applications, parts of the document may also be missing if scrolling is required.  Google Cloud Print promises to allow web applications such as Google Docs — or even conventional applications — to print “properly”.  Furthermore, Google will keep the software for your printer up to date (although you’ll still need to make sure the printer is properly configured to use Google Cloud Print).  Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it?  Maybe on the surface.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Juvenal

So why does this seemingly great idea from Google, the company whose motto is “Don’t be evil?”, keep me up at night?  Part of it is that I think one ought to be able to choose which organizations one entrusts with information ((In practice, there is very limited choice when it comes to governmental organizations — for example, you arguably can’t withhold your income to avoid paying tax if you decide to live in Canada.)).  For example, suppose you mistrust the online store ShoddyRetailers.com’s credit card handling procedures but not the independent UpstandingGoods.com.  Then you ought to be able to choose to shop at UpstandingGoods.com without worrying about ShoddyRetailers.com.  Voting with your clicks, as it were.

What if UpstandingGoods.com and all other retailers began having ShoddyRetailers.com process credit card transactions?  If Google Cloud Print takes off, because of the way it is designed, a similar thing will happen.  When using Google Cloud Print, even if you print a document from your computer to the printer right next to you, Google will have access to the full contents of the document, regardless of where your document was saved “in the cloud” or even if you were using a Google Cloud Print-enabled desktop application.  No amount of encryption will help — Google must receive an unadulterated copy of the document (encrypted between you, Google, and your printer) in order to print.  At least Google claims it won’t save a copy of these documents unless you opt-in, but what if this changes?  And what if it becomes nearly impossible to obtain a printer AND software that provides alternatives to Google Cloud Print?

At this point, someone usually makes the claim that only criminals have something to hide; I wish I was making a straw man argument, but I’m not.  If you insist on making that claim, do so after living in a glass house with all your actions and conversations archived and broadcast.  Then, make sure you publicly post copies of your driver’s license, passport, social insurance/security number, and banking information.  Oh, and only use passwords like 1234 ((As a matter of fact, I am telepathic!)) or none at all.  You might as well maintain a public list of your mother’s maiden name and the street you grew up on while you’re at it.  Or, if you don’t have the time to do all these things in real life or as gedanken, just talk to Ghyslain Raza or someone who has experienced identity fraud.

If you still believe that only criminals have something to hide, if your world view is logically consistent, then you must trust your government to determine what is criminal (criminality is, after all, a construct of the state).  Guess who has plenty to hide?  If you’re a government, can you really take a company at its word (even if it is ostensibly friendly towards you)?  “Oh, don’t worry.  We won’t tell Sealand that you’re planning an invasion.  Your nuclear secrets and black ops are safe with us.  And what Area 51?  Google Cloud Print has you covered.”  It’s one thing to leave an iPhone prototype in a bar or for a CSIS agent to leave a top secret computer diskette in a telephone booth, but it’s a different level of negligence that leads a government to use Google Cloud Print for its sensitive, classified, and top secret printing needs.  Without even considering the USA PATRIOT act in the case of governments outside of the United States, that’s about as reckless as giving the keys to a Death Star to Darth Vader.

Closer to home, as a researcher, Google Cloud Print would be incompatible with the guarantees of privacy protection afforded to participants in my study.  Google Cloud Print might also pose legal challenges for those printing documents with trade secrets or patent pending designs.  And, of course, there are state-sanctioned protections of certain communications that might be printed such as anonymous journalistic sources (shield laws for journalists), legal documents (attourney-client privilege and other protections), and medical records/psychiatric notes (doctor-patient confidentiality).  There are probably many other (non-criminal) occupations and purposes for which Google Cloud Print would be unfit.

Right now, Google Docs produces a file that you can download and print normally and this seems to work well enough.  New file handling behaviour or changes to some standard like HTML could be included in future browsers to make printing in web apps seamless by making the download transparent to the user.  Since we already have the technology to send print jobs over the Internet, Google Cloud Print really offers very little advantage over what we have now except maybe in the driver department (we need a transition period to make hardware Google Cloud Print-ready that could instead be used to transition to standardized printer APIs).  However, I’ll take the one-time hassle of two extra mouse clicks on my Mac (and maybe a future mobile Internet device) — or three extra mouse clicks for each print job with current technology — for peace of mind.

Perhaps I’m overreacting.  Maybe we can trust in Google’s benevolence and change our laws and privacy guarantees to allow us to use the Google Print Cloud for sensitive information.  After all, we send our children off to schools to be taken care of by strangers with tacit endorsement by the government or recommendations from friends.  We hand large sums of money to money managers and hope that nobody will have made off with our retirement funds and charitable donations.  We can lay money on a company run by the smartest guys in the room and take them at their word that they follow generally accepted accounting practices.  Yes, we might be fine trusting these gentle giants — what a hit learned kings might be, waxed Plato.  But making a mountain of a molehill doesn’t keep me up at night — I’d rather be safe than sorry.

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