NSA Spying on Brazil: A Political Nightmare

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

November 9, 2016

Last June, then-President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff met with Barack Obama to put an end to US surveillance of millions of Brazilian citizens. Before the meeting, Rousseff was a harsh critic of the NSA’s snooping. After the session, however, Rousseff emerged looking surprisingly happy and made the following statement,

“It means we recognize the actions taken by the U.S. … that friendly countries won’t be spied on. And we have a declaration from President Obama. When he wants to know something, he’ll call me.”

Economic Espionage

For privacy advocates in Brazil and elsewhere the agreement was an insulting shock. The 2013 Edward Snowden revelations had disclosed that the NSA’s PRISM program indiscriminately spied on Brazilian citizens. In July 2015, Wikileaks added to the puzzle by revealing that the NSA had been actively engaged in the economic espionage of Brazil.

brazil-wikiGovernment Officials Targetted

Julian Assange’s Wikileaks also revealed that the NSA had been spying on senior Brazilian government officials. The damning report found that President Dilma Rousseff was targeted for ‘intensive interception.’ In addition, her secretary, chief of staff, assistant, palace office and presidential jet telephone were all hacked by the NSA.

The list goes on. The NSA was hacking finance ministers, army general Jose Elito Carvalho Siqueira, Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras and its Ministry of Mines and Energy.

US intelligence was even snooping on management at the Brazilian Central Bank. Assange had the following to say about it,

“Our publication today shows the US has a long way to go to prove its dragnet surveillance on ‘friendly’ governments is over.

“Even if US assurances of ceasing its targeting of President Rousseff could be trusted, which they cannot, it is fanciful to imagine that President Rousseff can run Brazil by talking to herself all day. If President Rousseff wants to see more US investment in Brazil on the back of her recent trip as she claims, how can she assure Brazilian companies that their US counterparts will not have an advantage provided by this surveillance. Until she can really guarantee the spying has stopped – not just on her, but on all Brazilian issues.”

President of Brazil Impeached

In August 2016, the situation heated up more. The Brazilian senate impeached President Dilma Rousseff for illegally altering government accounts. Since then Michel Temer, the former vice-president, has been sworn in as president. He will complete the current term, until January 2019.

The fallout from the Brazilian web of corruption doesn’t end there. The list now also includes former speaker of the house of the Brazilian Congress, Eduardo Cunha. Cunha was arrested on 19 October 2016 for allegedly taking $5m in bribes from a firm that subsequently benefited from contracts with Petrobras. That is the same state-owned oil company that the NSA was found to be heavily spying on.

The damning revelations about US spying, coupled with widespread Brazilian corruption, have led many Brazilians to start questioning whether US firms can be trusted not to put backdoors in their products.

Microsoft was directly mentioned in the Snowden revelations for its part in assisting the NSA. It helped the NSA collect huge amounts of data from emails handled by its servers. Fearful that Windows was manufactured with a security flaw, Brazilians started kicking up a fuss. The result has been a huge loss of faith in Windows throughout Brazil.

Microsoft on the Defense

In an attempt to curb the widespread Brazilian belief that Windows is an NSA surveillance tool, Microsoft has just opened the doors of a ‘Transparency Center’ in the city of Brasilia. The center can be used by officials to inspect Windows’ programming code to make sure there are no backdoors. It is the fourth center of its kind. The first three were opened previously in Washington, Brussels and Singapore. Another will open soon in Beijing.

In the center, Brazilian officials will be allowed to inspect over 50 million lines of code for Microsoft’s email and server products. However, no electronic devices may be taken into the center and the code can’t leave. Nor is there any outside connection to the internet.

According to Microsoft, official government code checkers are able to use software tools to examine the code. In reality, however, it is not understood whether Microsoft will be allowing computer programming experts to perform the deep code analysis needed to find backdoors and other security flaws.

Mark Estberg, senior director of Microsoft’s global government security program, made the following comment,

“Governments can verify for themselves that there are no back doors.”


The Surveillance Must Go on

It isn’t clear whether Assange is correct to presume that the NSA has continued with its Brazilian surveillance program. What we do know is that the former Chief Minister of the General Secretariat of the Presidency of Brazil, Gilberto Carvalho (among others), believes that former President Rousseff was the victim of a political coup.

That belief has now been vindicated by Wikileaks, who according to Glenn Greenwald have demonstrated that the new President, Michel Temer, is still spying on Brazil for the U.S. “I think that document raised the level of espionage or treason,” says Greenwald.

“I think those documents are very interesting because they prove that Temer has a very close relation with the US.”

Stronger US-Brazil Bonds

With Temer tightening the bond between the US and Brazil, people are left fearing the worst. With the dangers so clear, Brazilians should strongly consider protecting themselves with a VPN service. Businesses and individuals in Brazil are seriously vulnerable to being snooped on by ISPs (on behalf of the government). A VPN service is by far the best solution for digital privacy.

Finally, we will wait with interest to see if any independent researchers permitted to look at Microsoft’s (usually) top-secret code are able to sufficiently analyze it for backdoors – or whether this sudden burst of transparency is just a well-marketed public relations exercise.

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