Lately, all eyes are focused on the dustup between Research in Motion (RIM) and several countries that are demanding access to the communications of RIM BlackBerry users.
And if RIM doesn't comply with these requests, several countries have vowed to shut RIM out of their markets. So now RIM finds itself embroiled in a kind of high-stakes global poker match with little room to bluff.
The governments of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, India, and Indonesia, among others, claim they need access to the BlackBerry messages because some services "allow users to act without any legal accountability, causing judicial, social and national security concerns," according to the UAE's Telecommunications Regulation Authority.
And although RIM acknowledges the right of sovereign governments to request access to personal communications for legitimate law enforcement and national security concerns, the company also says that the encryption of message traffic located in its Enterprise Servers is so good that even RIM itself can't crack the code.
Newspaper reports of RIM officials meeting behind closed doors with authorities of various governments to work out some kind of technical deal that satisfies the surveillance requests while also protecting the confidentiality of BlackBerry users adds an air of intrigue to the whole matter, which in turn makes the running media dialogue sound like the plotline of a spy novel.
Why should we be concerned? After all, the controversy is happening in far-flung locales and has very little impact on an average American citizen's day-to-day digital life.
Call it the "BlackBerry Butterfly Effect": In this era of a globally interconnected world, the clash between technology, user privacy, and national security anywhere in the world eventually affects us all. Once a company like RIM concedes to one government's demands for surveillance capabilities that do not properly protect privacy rights, other governments will demand equivalence.
The reality is that all governments will – and already do – approach technology companies to assist with law enforcement and national security surveillance requirements.
At the same time, technology companies have a responsibility to respect the human rights of users, including privacy rights.
The question becomes: What is a company like RIM supposed to do to be responsive to its users, to human rights concerns, and to local laws?
RIM's current challenge raises several issues that extend beyond the current controversy. First, companies need to be more transparent about the deals they cut with governments.
It is folly to believe that service providers consistently take a hard line when it comes to bucking a government request for surveillance. However, when the extent of that cooperation is kept secret, serious concerns arise: Users must be able to adequately assess the risks associated with the use of a particular communications tool.
Second, companies, advocates, and policymakers need to resist the imposition of broad and ill-defined technological design mandates on communications services and products.