After NSA Spying Allegations, Brazil Looks to Secure Telecommunications

By Rachel Glickhouse

Brazil’s president plans to secure the country’s internet and telecommunications from prying eyes. But some ask: will it work? 

Amid allegations of U.S. spying, Brazil’s president not only postponed a state visit to Washington, but has a plan intending to secure the country’s internet and telecommunications from prying eyes. The idea comes after reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) spied on millions of Brazilians’ phone calls and emails, as well as on state oil company Petrobras—and on President Dilma Rousseff herself. The government intends to implement a series of measures to secure Brazilians’ internet data and to expand and strengthen telecommunications infrastructure. But some question the effectiveness of the plan.

First, Rousseff wants to protect internet users’ data and emails. The president asked Congress this month to develop legislation requiring companies such as Google and Facebook to store user data in Brazil. Foreign companies would have to build Brazil-based servers, and the data stored within them would fall under Brazilian privacy laws. Rousseff spoke to Congressman Alessandro Molon, author of the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, also known as the Internet Constitution bill. She asked him to include the data center requirement in the legislation, which has been under debate since 2011 but has not been voted on. Last week, Rousseff's office filed a motion seeking urgency on the bill, which would force Congress to vote in the next 45 days. Another step Rousseff hopes to take is to launch a new encrypted email service as an alternative to free, U.S.-based services like Gmail. The postal service is currently developing the new email and aims to launch next year.

Next, Rousseff intends to protect and expand Brazil’s telecommunications infrastructure. The government plans to install new fiber optic cables that connect Brazil to Europe and South America, since much of Brazil’s global internet traffic now comes through the United States. Brazil has already established cables with neighboring Uruguay and is building more to Argentina. The government also aims to build more internet exchange points, and to develop locally made network equipment to protect against spying. Currently, Brazil spends about $500 million a year on internet exchange points. In addition, Brazil is planning on launching new satellites. In 2016, the government will debut a French-made satellite to extend the country’s broadband internet network and increase web security.

But will these steps really help secure Brazil’s telecommunications? Rousseff’s plan to protect user data is “simply unreasonable for global companies,” writes Latin America analyst James Bosworth, who says the measure will also add to the already high cost of doing business in Brazil. Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, told the Associated Press that the plan could “render inoperable popular software applications and services and endanger the Internet's open, interconnected structure.” Speaking to Reuters, Brazilian Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ricardo Ferraço expressed doubt about the measures. “However much we do, it will never be enough to stop U.S. electronic surveillance, because today's technology is boundless," he said.

Still, passage of the Internet Constitution bill could be a concrete outcome of the plan. One of the most contentious parts of the bill—which received pushback in Congress and from telecoms companies—guarantees net neutrality, ensuring Internet service providers and governments cannot restrict or interfere with users’ access to content, websites, or Internet-based services. In a meeting last week about the bill, Rousseff went through the bill “point by point” and assured that her administration supports the neutrality clause.