NSA spying and a new low in U.S.-Brazil relations

Latin America and the Caribbean

This post was written by WOLA Intern Michael Pelzer.

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff formally cancelled her planned October 23 visit to Washington D.C. in response to United States spying activities in Brazil, despite attempts by high ranking U.S. officials, including President Obama himself, to convince her otherwise. Rousseff’s staunch position comes in response to revelations surrounding National Security Agency (NSA) documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden. These leaks have profound implications for for the future of U.S.- Brazil relations with President Rousseff calling them “totally unacceptable,” and stating that “meddling in such a manner in the lives and affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and, as such, it is an affront to the principles that should otherwise govern relations among countries, especially among friendly nations.”

The exposure of a broad reaching and intrusive NSA initiative codenamed “PRISM”, among other programs, has led to varying degrees of diplomatic backlash from nations considered friends and allies.

PRISM is essentially a data-mining program that collects information passing through American Internet servers. Information is compiled without the permission of individuals or nations; it is then broken down and analyzed by the NSA.

The realization that the United States government was spying on citizens of nations considered friends or allies, has put a strain on relations around the globe. Heads of state from Europe, Asia and Latin America have claimed it to be a violation of sovereignty, as well as a poor precedent for use of new technologies set by the United States, the world’s most influential democracy.

Documents published by the Guardian have noted a three tier system of spying within Brazil, well beyond the PRISM program. Like many other nations, Brazilian citizens’ phone and Internet traffic was monitored, collected and analyzed—without government permission. This is especially disconcerting to the Brazilian people, who are still grappling with the legacy of a twenty year dictatorship defined by surveillance, repression, and a lack of transparency. Furthermore under programs like Blarney and Fairview, users social media data was scooped up and analyzed. Brazilians are avid users of social media, ranking third globally in terms of Facebook usage and second for both Youtube and Twitter.

The second tier of the NSA spy program involved the interception of phone calls, text messages, and emails between Rousseff and members of her staff. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claimed that the program was focused on combating terrorism and did not target personal communications — but the new revelations about spying on Rousseff’s communications contradicted that assurance. Rousseff saw this breach as “unacceptable” citing violations of national sovereignty.

As egregious an invasion of privacy as intercepting presidential text messages may have been, the revelation that the NSA hacked into the computers of Brazilian mega-company Petrobras met with the most outrage. Rousseff likened the incident to industrial espionage, arousing fears that the United States was attempting to gain an upper hand in the upcoming auction of the Libra oil field in October. Clapper refuted outright these implications, claiming that “The department does not engage in economic espionage in any domain, including cyber.” Clapper clarified this point by noting that:

“We collect this information for many important reasons: for one, it could provide the United States and our allies early warning of international financial crises which could negatively impact the global economy. It also could provide insight into other countries’ economic policy or behavior which could affect global markets.”

Rousseff responded with skepticism, questioning the intentions of the United States government. This skepticism led Rousseff to commission an investigation into the alleged hack. In a September 18 Senate hearing, Petrobras President Maria das Graças Foster testified that “there was no breach or any sign of a hacking attempt if there was one.” In all reality, the incentive for hacking the files does not balance with the risk of being caught doing so: almost all of the information pertaining to the Libra oil field was already publicly available.

The big question about NSA spying activities in Brazil is quite simply, why? Brazil has no history of terrorist connections and is not exactly a springboard for international terrorism. The answer inhabits the grey line between national security and national interest.

The President’s line is one claiming ignorance of the program’s pervasiveness and making assurances that the White House will consider making changes after a review. The intelligence community has responded differently; rather than apologizing, it is offering a justification for its actions, citing the importance of combating terrorism abroad. This mixed response by the United States government is a reflection of its relationship with Brazil in general: one of stated trust amid quiet skepticism.

Much of the NSA’s interest in Brazil owes to its location. Telecommunication lines from Europe, Africa and parts of the Middle East cross the Atlantic and converge in Brazil. It is worth noting that there are very few locations like this around the globe. Hubs like these are chokepoints for international communications, consolidating the interactions of millions into a single location providing a one stop shop for all the NSA’s information needs. Furthermore, Brazil is also a hub for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a clearing house for international financial transaction communications. SWIFT provides a secure means of sending sensitive banking information between more than ten thousand financial institutions in 212 countries. Again, this provides intelligence agencies with a swath of sensitive information that has the potential to incriminate the financiers of terrorist organizations as well as the intended recipients of that money.

Some have labeled Rousseff’s outraged response a product of political pandering, citing her desire to rally public opinion for the upcoming 2014 elections. Although her approval rating is relatively high, a September 12 poll put her at 58%, rallying public support is always on the prospectus for an incumbent politician. Had she not made a statement, Rousseff would have come across as inept or worse, weak. Brazil is attempting to establish itself in the world and in order to do so it cannot be humiliated by other nations. By standing up to the United States, Rousseff is playing off an important historical legacy with implications for the future.

Brazil’s Cold War history is defined by a succession of brutally repressive military dictators whose lineage began with a 1964 coup, which was supported by the United States. The memories of that coup and the following two decades of military dictators are a dark period in Brazilian history and a legacy of U.S. meddling. During the military regime, Rousseff associated herself with various Marxist and left-leaning movements leading to her eventual imprisonment and torture. It stands to reason that the discovery of a clandestine surveillance program by a U.S. spy agency triggered fears of a resurgent meddling of the United States in Brazilian affairs, something alluded to in her address to the United Nations where she noted “As many other Latin Americans, I fought against authoritarianism and censorship, and I cannot but defend, in an uncompromising fashion, the right to privacy of individuals and the sovereignty of my country.”

Rousseff’s cancellation is a means of asserting Brazil’s independence within the region. Her meeting with Obama was the only scheduled official state visit to the White House this year, and was a representation of Brazil’s growing importance within the hemisphere. Brazil’s willingness to voice protest against the United States may represent a paradigmatic shift in U.S.-Brazil relations; changing from one of U.S. dominance to one of greater Brazilian independence and regional relevance.

Rousseff is now pushing for a number of reforms in an attempt to curb U.S. spying; the two main reforms would be the passage of an Internet constitution and the creation of localized servers.

The Internet constitution itself is not a new concept. It was originally proposed in 2009. However, recent revelations have fast-tracked its consideration. The Marco Civil da Internet will spell out the expectations and rights of the government, businesses, and the population with regard to the Internet and its usage.

The second, and potentially more contentious, response is Rousseff’s push to mandate local servers designed by Brazilian companies. The broad objective of this move would be to put the management of information in the hands of Brazilians, rather than in those of multinational corporations complicit with the U.S. intelligence community. Agencies such as the NSA work with American software developers in order to build backdoors into programs that allow eavesdropping. By designing Internet and security software in house, Rousseff is hoping to avoid this type of issue in the future. Mandating companies wishing to operate in Brazil to have local servers is also an attempt to manage the flow of private information out of Brazil and into the hands of companies that share it with various governments.

Concerns have been raised about these types of programs, with some saying that they will create barriers in the Internet, act as anticompetitive measures boosting domestic companies, or simply won’t work. How effective or ineffective these programs will or will not be is not what is at the center of this shift, rather it is the statement being made by instituting them in the first place.

Brazil’s actions have implications for both the U.S. economy and security sector. The importance of Brazil as a consumer economy, especially in terms of social media, will lead many companies to follow proposed Brazilian legislations, building domestic servers and ultimately rasing operating costs. Facebook, for example, operates a global network out of the United States and Sweden. Brazilian reforms like the ones proposed would require Facebook to build facilities in Brazil as well, raising costs significantly. In fact, Forrester Research, a business forecasting service, estimates that this type of reform could cost U.S. companies 180 billion dollars by 2016—constituting a 25% hit to information technology service providers.

However, the real effects of this legislation would be felt if it spread. Brazil is setting a precedent, directly confronting the ways in which large technology firms operate. This forces them to reconsider their relationship with governments and consumers, prompting a much needed conversation about the role of private information, technology firms, and national security.

Perhaps the more profound impact of Brazil’s push is the ways in which it will affect both current and future U.S. intelligence programs. Nations across the globe reacted by condemning the NSA program, calling it an invasion of their citizens’ privacy and a breach of national sovereignty; but their outrage was markedly reserved, for most never extending beyond verbal condemnation. Dilma Rousseff, on the other hand, has not remained silent on the issue; instead she has used what influence she has to try and influence U.S. spying policy. This is very much because Brazil is in a relatively unique position, insofar as some of the leaks coming from Snowden dealt directly with Brazil. This served as a direct affront to Rousseff and her people, forcing a more vehement response.

By further asserting her nation’s autonomy from the United States as well as Brazil’s influence within the region and around the globe, Rousseff can encourage other nations to take similar measures. The hope is that Rousseff’s actions will force a much needed conversation on what defines sovereignty in a world that is increasingly shaped by boundless communication and an unregulated security sector that seeks to exploit it.