US news agency Associated Press reports that Brazil is planning to cut itself off from free-flowing global information traffic and adopt “internet isolation” by divorcing itself from the U.S.-centric Internet.
Brazilian President Dilma Roussef has cancelled a trip to Washington to visit the White House, as a protest against US surveillance and abuses of US spy agencies’ freedom to roam the internet.
The consequences for Brazil’s science community could be far-reaching. This also signals, warns AP in its article “a potentially dangerous first step toward politically fracturing a global network built with minimal interference by governments.”
The development comes just at a time when Brazil was making significant inroads into online scientific publishing with the runway success of its SCIELO database, identified by the European Union as being responsible for Brazil having higher indices of immediate online access to scientific information than many EU member states. Booming prosperity and connectivity have made Brazil one of the world’s fastest-rising internet users. All that could be imperilled.
Brazil’s move comes as an angry response to a spate of charges published in the world’s media that America’s National Security Agency engaged in egregious spying activities against both President Dilma Rousseff and the national oil company Petrobras.
Hostility between Brazil and the US has been building since a visit in August by US Secretary of State John Kerry, which was wholly derailed by the spying issue.
In a statement, the Brazilian President’s office said that “given the proximity of the scheduled state visit to Washington – and in the absence of a timely investigation of the incident, with corresponding explanations and the commitment to cease the interception activities” it could not go ahead as planned. Brasilia is accusing the NSA not just of political survelliance without any security justification, but of industrial and commercial espionage because Petrobras was on the eve of an important sale of oil exploration blocs — many of them to US oil firms seeking to offer the lowst bids.
Coincidence or not, the reason why America’s National Security Agency has been so interested in all things Brazilian in recent months is that Brazil has become the principal conduit for embarrassing revelations about the Agency’s clandestine activities, as a result of disclosures from former US contractor Edward Snowden.
These revelations were published in the Guardian newspaper by Glenn Greenwald, a US investigative reporter based in Rio de Janeiro. Again, coincidence or not, the NSA’s oversight in Brazil became so heavy-handed that local intelligence agencies picked up the activity.
In a bid to get away from US control of its communications networks, Brazil has already signed satellite construction deals with a European consortium, and is planning to route undersea cables via Europe instead of the US.
Brazil’s government is also reported by Reuters Agency to have told major data carriers such as Google, Facebook and Twitter that henceforward, information flowing to and from Brazil will need to be stored on Brazilian soil.
Whether or not Brazil has been justifiably provoked by foreign intelligence agencies, what would be the consequences for the free flow of information, and how will the scientific community ensure it does not become cut off behind a national security firewall?
Analysts are already drawing parallels with China, which has strict rules on the activities of search engine operators and where there have been numerous clashes between the authorities and champions of free information sharing.
Some doubt it will be impossible for Brazil to remain a paid-up member of the global information society, while putting up these fences to try and keep out the US intelligence community.
“The global backlash is only beginning and will get far more severe in coming months,” AP quoted Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the Washington-based New America Foundation think tank, as saying. “This notion of national privacy sovereignty is going to be an increasingly salient issue around the globe.”
While Brazil is now a robust democracy and President Rousseff’s administration will have to get its new plans through the congress, more repressive administrations around the world will likely take heart from her unwitting lurch toward online censorship.
U.S. digital security expert Bruce Schneier told the AP that while Brazil’s response is a rational reaction to NSA spying, it is likely to embolden “some of the worst countries out there to seek more control over their citizens’ Internet. That’s Russia, China, Iran and Syria. That’s Tunisia. That’s Egypt.”
The consequences are financial as well as political, notes AP. Brazilians are among the most voracious consumers of social media, ranking No. 3 on Facebook and No. 2 on Twitter and YouTube. An August study by a respected U.S. technology policy non-profit estimated the fallout from the NSA spying scandal could cost the U.S. cloud computing industry, which stores data remotely to give users easy access from any device, as much as $35 billion by 2016 in lost business.
In other commercial fields, commentators warn that US companies such as Boeing could lose areospace business. It will also be harder for US drilling companies to secure a larger piece of the Brazilian offshore industry than they already aspire to.
Ironically, there is little likelihood that building such firewalls would be effective for Brazil. According to The Economist part of the Snowden revelations provide evidence that the NSA may have used its influence with manufacturers of software, to embed “backdoors” into their coding and encryption structures – meaning that the security of almost all the world’s computers has already been compromised by the original equipment manufacturers themselves, regardless of any channels that information passes along.
So Brazil’s information systems are already compromised and will continue to be so. And the same fate could also befall its science if the digital barriers crash into place.