Cutting the Cord: Brazil’s Bold Plan to Combat the NSA

Published on Global, by Amar Toor, Sept 27, 2013.

Earlier this month, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff announced plans to create an undersea fiber-optic cable that would funnel internet traffic between South America and Europe, bypassing the US entirely. Rousseff also urged legislators to pass an amendment that would force Google, Microsoft, and other US web companies to store data for Brazilian users on servers located within Brazil, while the country’s postal service has already begun developing an encrypted domestic email system.  

The moves come as a direct response to allegations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been eavesdropping on Rousseff’s phone calls and emails, according to classified documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The reports, published earlier this year, have escalated diplomatic tensions between the Obama administration and Rousseff, who yesterday accused the US of violating international law in a scathing speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Rousseff’s proposals rest upon the premise that by routing web traffic away from American soil and keeping data within Brazil, the Brazilian government could more easily control and secure citizens’ online information. But experts say the plans would do little to stop the NSA from spying on Brazilian communications, and some worry that they could lead to a more fractured internet.

“Just because you take steps to make it more difficult for the NSA doesn’t mean the NSA packs up their stuff and goes home,” says Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union ACLU.

The majority of internet traffic to Central and South America flows through a single building in Miami, known as the Network Access Point NAP of the Americas.

Bypassing that route with a new cable would require years of work and billions of dollars, and likely would have little effect on NSA surveillance, Soghoian says. The US already has a nuclear submarine explicitly dedicated to tapping undersea internet cables, and has proven its ability to hack into the computer networks of foreign governments.

Forcing companies to store data locally would make it easier for Brazilian authorities to access information held by US-owned corporations, but Soghoian warns that it wouldn’t make things much harder for the NSA; because both companies are based in the US, American officials could still force Google or Facebook to hand over that data through subpoena or court order, regardless of where their servers are located. Brazil could implement encryption techniques to make it harder for the NSA to access emails, he notes, but the strongest measures could make it difficult for Brazilian authorities to access data, too … //

… The NSA controversy has allowed Rousseff to shift the conversation away from Brazil’s social unrest, and she’s certainly seized upon the opportunity. Last week, Rousseff cancelled an October state dinner with President Obama — the first for a Brazilian president in nearly two decades — saying a state visit cannot occur without a “timely investigation” into the NSA’s practices. Last week, she urged Congress to vote on the legislation on domestic data centers — part of a broader “Internet Constitution” that includes a host of other privacy protections — within 45 days, describing it as an emergency measure.

There’s an economic component to Brazil’s plan, as well. The country has spent years nurturing a domestic information technology sector, protecting homegrown industries with high import tariffs and tax breaks. The policies have dramatically raised prices of smartphones and other electronics in Brazil, though they’ve also spawned thousands of startups and some major manufacturing plants. Friendly tax policies have lured global companies like Microsoft and Lenovo, while the government’s recently launched Startup Brasil program aims to lure foreign entrepreneurs with visas and seed money.

It’s not entirely surprising that the country would take a similar approach to the internet. As Bloomberg News reported last week, the NSA controversy may provide a boost to domestic telecom companies in particular, as the Brazilian government has begun working more closely to develop safeguards to protect national networks. The government is also considering a law that would require all Brazil-based phone companies to use domestically manufactured equipment.

Yet there are concerns that Rousseff’s political optics may obscure more substantive debates about international surveillance, and that whatever action the country takes may be too weak to effectively ward off American agencies.

“Cancelling a state visit is fine,” says Soghoian, the ACLU analyst. “But when your citizens are using unencrypted emails and unencrypted telephone calls, you’re not actually doing anything practical to stop the NSA.”
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