There Are Pitfalls If Brazil Wants To Secure Its Internet From Spies

Brazil is formulating a bold new plan to protect itself from NSA spying after revelations that the U.S. illegally listened in on conversations between the president and her cabinet, and spied on the state oil company, Petrobras. But experts warn its easier said than done and there are risks inherent with tampering with the internet.

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Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff caused a stir yesterday at the United Nations General Assembly when she opened the session with a fiery speech attacking the U.S. spying operation. She's heard here speaking through an interpreter.

PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: (Through translator) What we have before us, Mr. President, is a serious case of violation of human rights and civil liberties, and above all, a case of disrespect to national sovereignty, the national sovereignty of my country.

BLOCK: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Sao Paulo on what Brazil is planning to do to protect itself from the National Security Agency's prying eyes.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Brazil is a vibrant democracy, an economic powerhouse, but crucially, it's also a country with one of the highest levels of Internet use in the world. Almost half of its citizens are connected, and they spend a lot of time online. So when Brazil talks about Internet security, people actually listen.

MARILIA MACIEL: But I think that Brazil has a special position because it walks the talk. So I believe that when Brazil says that Internet governance should be reviewed in a way, that we need to build new mechanisms and new policies, I think it has an additional weight.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Marilia Maciel, a researcher who works on Internet security policy at Brazil's Getulio Vargas Foundation. The debate here was kicked off over the summer when the first of a series of articles detailing how the NSA spies on Brazil was written. They were based on documents given to Glenn Greenwald by NSA leaker Edward Snowden. They allege that the NSA not only has access to regular Brazilians' communications but also members of the government, including Rousseff herself.

MACIEL: I think the case with the NSA give us an opportunity to discuss things that were not being discussed before, such as the need for international spaces to discuss Internet policies and the need for an international framework.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is Brazil planning? Maciel says there are a number of proposals on the table: more Internet exchange points in Brazil so that email traffic from, let's say, Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro doesn't have to travel via Miami. They want to lay fiber optic cables that bypass the U.S. entirely. They also want giants like Google and Yahoo! to store Brazilian data in local servers, and they want to start a Brazil-based Internet service under the auspices of the post office here. It all sounds good, but Maciel says it may not be feasible. Private companies, not governments, are actually at the forefront of how the Internet is used. And most of those companies are American.

Demi Getschko is part of a committee that oversees Internet issues in Brazil and gives the government recommendations. He recently spoke to President Rousseff on how Brazil could respond to the NSA spying.

DEMI GETSCHKO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We think it would be very good to have alternatives to the concentration the U.S. currently has, he says. But the fact is you will always have an enormous traffic heading to Europe and the US. We can mitigate it, but we can't change it completely, he says.

He says that Brazil is very conscious that they don't want to encourage what is being labeled the balkanization of the Internet where countries close themselves off from the global free flow of information.

GLENN GREENWALD: I think that there definitely needs to be some alternative to U.S. dominance over the system that supports the infrastructure of the Internet because that is the state of affairs that has allowed the NSA to essentially try to annex the Internet as their own personal spying playground.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Glenn Greenwald, the author of the articles on NSA spying here, in an interview with NPR. But he adds that citizens could find themselves open to repression from their own governments if things are taken too far.

GREENWALD: There is a temptation on the part of every power faction to try and exploit the Internet to erode privacy and to increase their own surveillance. And I think that a lot of vigilance is going to have to be devoted to these alternatives as well and make sure that they don't end up being as bad just in different ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.

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