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Can Brazil help roll back US surveillance?

Brazil has become a staunch and vocal critic of US espionage, asking Google and Facebook to install local servers. But will this really work? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on emerging powers and human rightsEspañol.

Robert Valencia
15 January 2014

Brazil has risen to global prominence because of its economic growth and potential, disaster relief leadership during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and skilled core of globally engaged diplomats.

This past fall, Brazil’s biggest international move was its outspoken opposition to espionage by the US spy agency, the National Security Agency (NSA). OpenGlobalRights author Jeffrey Cason argues that Brazil is too traditional to be a global human rights leader, and that “it is unlikely to make human rights promotion a centerpiece of its foreign policy.”

Yet Brazil has long criticized the US and other governments when they tread on civil freedoms. Now, the country is leading a global backlash against the US for its habit of mass, online espionage.

Brazil has expressed support for whistleblowers before. In 2010, for example, then-Brazilian President, Inácio Lula Da Silva, expressed support for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, describing him as a champion of free expression. Yet the WikiLeaks revelations did not stir much comment in Brazil.

In 2013, when former NSA contractor and former CIA employee Edward Snowden disclosed up to 1.7 million classified documents with the help of the Brazil-based Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald (who also hosts a popular TV news magazine show, Fantastico), Brazilians stood up and took notice.

In Latin America, the US allegedly eavesdropped on Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil. The former wrote letters of protest, but Brazil took a much stronger position. And in September 2013, President Dilma Rousseff took the issue up with the UN General Assembly.

Rousseff accused the NSA of violating international law by arbitrarily collecting information from Brazilian nationals and officials, and said the NSA had intercepted communications by Brazilian diplomatic missions, including the permanent mission to the UN, as well as her own office.

Indeed, Rousseff’s rage was such that she cancelled her visit to Washington that very same month.

To promote change, Rousseff requested that Google and Facebook install new servers located in Brazil, as these would presumably be protected from US espionage. Arguing that Brazil has become one of the world’s largest technology and social media markets, Rousseff seemed keen to create a separate Brazilian data hub that would, ultimately, force Internet companies to abide by Brazil’s privacy laws. 

Installing Google and Facebook servers in Brazil is hard to do, however. As a Google representative says, “the infrastructure would be complicated to develop.” According to the Brazilian Association of Software Enterprises, moreover, new domestic installations might wind up costing local providers and users more than they currently pay.

Yet even if new servers are eventually installed in Brazil, outsiders could still hack into the system; the Internet, after all, is a worldwide network.

Another major problem is that Brazil still does not have adequate data protection and retention laws. Although the government has proposed legislation, civil society has successfully fought back, arguing that some provisions could require mass surveillance and data retention by “unaccountable private companies.”

In December 2013, Snowden wrote a letter “to the people of Brazil,” published in the Brazilian newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo. He promised to help Brazil investigate NSA spying, but in return, asked for political asylum. “If Brazil hears only one thing from me,” Snowden wrote, “let it be this: when all of us band together against injustices and in defense of privacy and basic human rights, we can defend ourselves from even the most powerful systems.”

Yet Brazil does not want to further damage its relations with the US and thus declined Snowden’s request, according to unnamed government officials. Some Brazilian politicians, including Senator Ricardo Ferraço, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, disagreed, arguing that their country should grant Snowden protection. 

Brazil’s general elections will take place on October 5, 2014, and Dilma Rousseff is likely to defeat her closest challengers. In her next term, she’ll have to somehow convince the Senate and ordinary Brazilians that her data protection plans will really curb espionage by the US and others.

Yet even if nothing else happens, Brazil’s outspoken opposition to NSA methods has opened the door for other governments, encouraging them to join a global discussion about data, privacy, and civil liberties. 

Eventually, Brazil’s opposition may help us all limit practices of mass, online surveillance.

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