WCO in Seattle: Protecting computer data in "the cloud"

May 13, 2011

The famous "battle in Seattle" more than a decade ago put the letters "W-T-O" into the collective consciousness. Now most people have at least a vague idea about the role the World Trade Organization plays in regulating international commerce. 

But what about the letters W-C-O?

They stand for World Customs Organization, which is a similar kind of international entity. Delegates from its 177 member countries met in Seattle this week. They were joined by dozens of high-tech companies interested in getting their business.

Their latest challenge? So-called "cloud computing."

It's a relatively new term for most people. "The cloud" is a catchy way of referring to cyberspace - and the tangle of remote servers and applications that more and more organizations are using to store information.

"For us, customs (officials,) it is a rather new concept. Perhaps three years ago, I've never heard about cloud," says Kunio Mikuriya.

He's the Secretary General of the World Customs Organization, which is based in Brussels. It sets the rules and standards that enable border protection agencies to cooperate across international lines. 

Mikuriya is Japanese. I couldn't resist asking him how he refers to the newfangled "cloud" in his language, which has its roots in an ancient civilization.

"Kumo – kumo," he says with a chuckle.

In Seattle, the Secretary General says his organization was focused almost exclusively on cloud computing "...and how we can use cloud computing to connect customs administrations all over the world."

He says cloud computing is still at an evolutionary stage. But it is a very important concept "because we are headed for globally networked customs."

The idea is to make it easier and faster for governments to process things like bills of lading for international trade and visas for travel– and to more efficiently stamp out threats from illegal trafficking and terrorism. 

But, as you can imagine, making data on these matters safe in the cloud is no easy task. And it's not taken lightly, says Richard Spires, the Chief Information Officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"We can't be so insular that we hurt ourselves, yet, we also have to be diligent about putting the right kinds of protections in place. And we're constantly working to strike that right balance," Spires says.

How can they know for sure that the users who are logging in to get sensitive information are who they appear to be? And how can they ensure that they’re sharing high-level information only with the right organizations on the other end?

"These are key security questions and issues that we are facing right now," Spires told a panel put together for journalists covering the WCO conference.

Private companies also lined up to attend the conference, eager to show the agencies in the WCO how they would help solve those problems. Chief among them was conference sponsor Microsoft, which is steadily shifting its corporate focus from making software to providing services via cyberspace. 

Linda Zecher, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President for the Worldwide Public Sector, delivered one of the keynote speeches at the conference.  She says the hardest part in the international arena is setting the standards so that all the technology works properly as it crosses through countries at sometimes vastly different stages of development.

"We are looking for open and competitive standards," Zecher says. 

"And whether it's us, whether it's Google, whether it's anybody else that's in this environment, I think the important thing is to make sure that our customers have choice, but our customers also have open standards for interoperability, across a variety of different platforms."

She acknowledges that there is a lot of money to be made on the government contracts enabling all of this. 

But the upside is that some of the poorer countries in the WCO will be able to leapfrog into a more advanced state of border protection as they take newer technology from the cloud.