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Cyberspace confidential Add to ...

There's a story about a 1960s British intelligence chief who was so frustrated and confused by the proliferation of meaningless acronyms and code names for spying missions that he turned to an assistant and asked in exasperation: "Now, just what on earth does this KUWAIT refer to?"

Listening to stories about BlackBerry and the United Arab Emirates, Canadians must be feeling the same way. UAE? RIM? Kuwait? BES? Public Key Encryption? What's all the fuss about?

Well, Canadians had better pay attention, because the stakes are high and issues such as these are only going to become more common, as much for users as for companies such as Research In Motion.

All of us have become accustomed to the convenience of smart phones, the connectivity of social networking and the ubiquitous presence of digital media. We twitter about the geolocation of our favourite coffee shop, bank online with financial services apps, post our family snaps to photo-sharing sites, and check our e-mail and store our documents on cloud computing services.

We have immersed ourselves in a technological environment of our own making, called cyberspace, which we take for granted as our communications and media ecosystem. We leave electronic traces of ourselves scattered across the servers of this vast geographically extended domain like granules of sand on an endlessly mutating, ever-expanding beach.

But who controls this domain and what are they doing with our data? What happens to our e-mail once we hear that familiar "woosh" sound as it leaves our screen? Is it shared with anyone without our consent? Under what circumstances?

The first place you might look is the policies of the providers themselves. Many of them reassure us that their services are highly secure and that your data is confidential, but the devil is always in the details. In this case, he resides among those lengthy end-user licence agreements we agree to before proceeding to use our BlackBerry, iPhone or Gmail accounts.

Ever read and understood one? Not likely, unless you have an advanced legal degree. They also tend to be frustratingly vague on some key issues.

Take, for example, the Rogers Yahoo Internet Services Privacy Policy, which has an interesting clause: "Personal information collected for the Internet Service may be stored and processed in Canada, the United States or other countries and may be subject to the legal jurisdiction of these countries." Other countries? Really? My data can be processed in another country and subject to the laws of those countries? Which countries? Whose laws?

Questions such as these are not obscure legalese that amount to nothing in practice. They become critically important as companies extend their services into emerging markets where profits can be made but often at the expense of principles we take for granted in Canada.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons for companies to comply with local laws, and with law enforcement and intelligence.

The key to understanding this dynamic is the sea change that has occurred as governments assert themselves in cyberspace, primarily for national security reasons. Fearful of cyber espionage, eager to manoeuvre in this domain, determined to block access to a range of content, governments are strategically exercising their power in cyberspace. To do so effectively, however, they need to enlist the co-operation of the companies that own and operate cyberspace. And that means companies such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and now RIM.

For their part, companies are eager to capitalize on emerging markets but often have to engage in complex negotiations to satisfy their hosts and to comply with local law. Part of that negotiation process can involve local companies with whom they must partner. This can create some vexing ethical issues for those companies, and some dubious associations.

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