Brazil has announced plans to rebuild the country’s Internet infrastructure to avoid mass surveillance.
For the White House, the recent bout of trouble the administration finds itself in with Brazil represents the ever-expanding rebuke coming from friends and foes alike. After revelations that the National Security Agency has been covertly eavesdropping on international communiqués originating from or terminating in the United States, a growing number of nations have demanded accountability and an end to American control of global communications.
On Tuesday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced that she will be putting off a state visit to the U.S. that was scheduled for next month, in protest of American spying on her nation’s government and citizenry. The Rousseff administration has stated that the trip is not outright cancelled, but postponed; the White House presented the cancellation as a mutual decision between the two administrations.
“They both look forward to that visit, which will celebrate our broad relationship,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “We’re certainly acknowledging the concerns that these disclosures have generated in Brazil and other countries.”
Rousseff has additionally ordered a series of measures that would exert more national control over Brazil’s traffic on the Internet. While Rousseff feel this is needed to protect the privacy of Brazilians, many experts feel that Rousseff’s plan — if its even possible — could lead to the ‘balkanization’ of the Internet.
“The global backlash is only beginning and will get far more severe in coming months,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute. “This notion of national privacy sovereignty is going to be an increasingly salient issue around the globe.”
The U.S. and Brazil
Brazil has been particularly singled out by U.S. spying. Classified documents leaked by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden showed that the NSA had intercepted billions of emails and telephone calls passing through Brazil — an anchor of the Africa-to-South-America trans-Atlantic fiber optic cable — and had hacked into the computer network of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil company. Rousseff, who is facing a tough re-election, is making moves to appear tough against American spying, the revelation of which confirmed long-held suspicions Brazilians had of the American government.
“Brazil, with extensive public and private networks scanned, operated by large telecommunications companies and internet, is highlighted on maps of the U.S. agency focus primarily on voice traffic and data (origin and destination), along with nations such as China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan,” wrote Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Brazil, for O Globo (translated here from the original Portuguese). “It is uncertain how many people and companies spied in Brazil. But there is evidence that the volume of data captured by the filtering system in the local telephone networks and the Internet is constant and large scale.”
Rousseff’s visit would have been the first from a Brazilian president since 1995. Eager to reconfirm its friendship with the economically vibrant Brazil — whose economy, the largest in South America, is experiencing a renaissance with the upcoming World Cup and Summer Olympics — the White House planned a visit full of pomp and circumstance. At the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg last month, President Obama tried to convince Rousseff to change her mind about cancelling her visit, with national security advisor Susan Rice attempting damage control with Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo.
In the end, however, Rousseff held to the notion that friends do not spy on each other and that it was impossible to maintain a democratic alliance with a nation that would resort to such actions.
Controlling the Internet
Rousseff’s plan would require Internet services — such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook — to establish local servers within Brazil for the use of Brazilian citizens and businesses. Rousseff would also want more internet exchange points to route Brazilian traffic around potential spyware, to launch a state-ran email service through the Brazilian postal service that would serve as an alternative to American-controlled email providers such as Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Windows Live Mail, and run a new underwater fiber optic cable to Europe so that Brazil can connect to these countries without running its traffic through the U.S.
While the impetus toward requesting all of this is clear, the practicality and possibility of implementation is less so. First, Brazil would have to convince the multinational Internet services that expanding their infrastructure in Brazil — which would include laying down new cables and new routers and building new server hubs, while hiring and maintaining the personnel needed to man all of this — is a good idea. The cost of all of this could be astronomical. A report from Multichannel News indicates that Google is slated to spend $177 million to establish a fiber optic network in Kansas City, Mo. alone.
“If that happens, and other nations follow suit, Silicon Valley’s bottom line could be hit by lost business and higher operating costs,” the Washington Post reported. “Brazilians rank No. 3 on Facebook and No. 2 on Twitter and YouTube. An August study by a respected U.S. technology policy nonprofit 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.”
To establish Internet backbone-capability to Brazil, it would cost billions — not counting the cost to lay transoceanic fiber optics cable. The United States host the Internet backbone due to ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. The ARPANET connected the U.S. Department of Defense to the computer networks of universities that were working on Defense-funded projects. What made ARPANET special is the fact that it was capable of inter-networking.
What, exactly, is the Internet, and why is so much of it in the U.S.?
Internetworking, or packet switching, is the concept that two separate computer networks can share data with each other if they share a data transmission-capable communication line. Two networks, which speak to each other via Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), becomes an internet. These systems allowed ARPANET to connect to the transoceanic cables — most of which anchor to the United States, with American companies sponsoring the construction of most of them — allowing the connection of ARPANET to international networks, such as the United Kingdom’s National Physical Laboratory’s Mark I.
As the interconnectivity spread, the National Science Foundation developed the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), which allowed fast access to supercomputers sites throughout the nation to ARPANET subscribers. In 1990, the ARPANET dissolved into NSFNET; with NSFNET’s decommissioning in 1995, the entire system was commercialized, giving birth to the modern Internet.
Basically, the Internet is the global network of internets. Since 1995, the American telecoms have reinforced the old ARPANET and NSFNET backbones with fiber optics trunk lines and the vast majority of the systems’ routers — 134,855 are in North America alone. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of all online searches are executed on American servers.
With so much of the Internet’s “guts” located within American borders and with most of the major Internet service companies being America-based, most nations “piggybacked” on the American backbone, which reduced their implementation costs by only requiring them to secure a single connection link to the United States or to a shared cable heading there. “Going it alone” introduces the headache and cost of building a national internet from scratch. It would also cripple Internet-based applications, or “cloud services,” in Brazil.
As a result, most experts feel it’s impossible to exclude data on the Internet from entering the U.S. When determining a path from point A to point B, routers pick the fastest route, based on the current “ping” rate received. As the United States’ backbone is so well-defined, usually the fastest “ping” rate comes from America-based servers.
“Regarding the new cables, you can’t say, ‘My data should go from here to here across this particular path’,” said Dr. Joss Wright, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute, to the BBC. “It’s calculated on a very ad-hoc basis where it is going to go… which means you can’t guarantee that just because there is a new high-capacity cable running from Brazil to Russia that all the data will go through it rather than an alternative.”
“Look at the EU — it already has very strict rules about sharing and processing data and the general rule is that you can only share data if you share it with a country that has equivalently strong protection laws,” Wright continued. “However, the U.S., being the U.S., has a get-out-of-jail-free card with what are called the ‘safe harbour provisions.’ They are an industry self-regulatory agreement which says they will treat data according to EU standards. But there is no oversight, there’s no comeback if they do not live up to them.”
Anger and frustration
Rousseff has indicated that there is an “understanding” in place between Brazil and the European Union about data privacy and that her administration is in talks to establish land-based connections to the South American nations. Rousseff also indicated that Brazil will increase investment toward home-grown technologies and will only do business with hardware and software companies that adhere to Brazil’s data privacy specifications. Brazil is also seeking funding of a BRICS cable — a transoceanic cable connecting Fortaleza, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Mauritius; Chennai, India; Singapore; Shantou, China and Vladivostok, Russia. Cable builders are hoping for completion by 2015.
The BRICS cable would replace the Fortaleza-to-Miami, Fl. cable, which is responsible for the vast majority of all Latin America Internet traffic. Brazil plans to launch its first telecommunications satellite in 2016.
Beyond the financial considerations, a nation excluding itself from certain parts of the Internet raises questions of censorship. The idea of a private, internally controlled national internet could encourage current efforts from countries like China and Russia toward controlling what their citizens can see and do on the Internet.
An argument against Brazil’s plan — which has been codified as the Marco Civil bill — is that having Brazilian citizens’ Internet data within Brazil’s borders makes them subpoenable. Brazil does not have a law that specifically addresses data privacy.
The reality of the situation is that Brazil can spend its money to create a private internet, and it may keep the U.S. out of some of Brazil’s Internet traffic, but it will not exclude the possibility of American spying. The newly proposed bill does not exclude Brazilians from willingly using American Internet services and the NSA is free to surveil at a different anchor — such as Alexandria or Mumbai.
“There’s nothing viable that Brazil can really do to protect its citizenry without changing what the U.S. is doing,” said Meinrath.