BRASILIA (Reuters) - Can any government escape the prying eyes of the U.S. National Security Agency? Brazil is going to try.
Angered by recent revelations that the United States spied on its emails and phone calls and even its president, Brazil’s government is speeding up efforts to improve the security of its communications - and hopefully keep more of its secrets under wraps.
By purchasing a new satellite, pushing bureaucrats in Brasilia to use secure email platforms and even building its own fiber-optic cable to communicate with governments in neighboring countries, Brazil hopes to at least reduce the amount of information available to foreign spies.
The growing emphasis on secure communications has been a somewhat tough sell in a famously relaxed country that has no history of international terrorism and hasn’t gone to war with any of its neighbors in more than a century.
Brazilian officials also admit they face the same problems as many other countries upset by the recent NSA disclosures. That is, building new technology is expensive and difficult, and even then there is no guarantee of fully dodging the sophisticated dragnet employed by the U.S. government.
Nonetheless, Brazil is particularly motivated to act.
More than most other countries, it has been embarrassed by documents leaked by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. A report by Globo TV on Sunday displayed a document with a diagram showing communications between President Dilma Rousseff and her top aides, which it said was part of an NSA “case study” on its own powers of espionage.
Rousseff was so angered by the news that she may cancel a planned state visit to the White House next month, an official told Reuters on Wednesday.
That followed a report in July that the NSA had used secret surveillance programs to spy on emails and collect data on telephone calls in Brazil and other Latin American countries. In response, the U.S. government has said it monitors the patterns of communications in order to detect potential threats to security, but it does not snoop on ordinary people.
Bureaucrats working in Brasilia’s modernistic government buildings have had encrypted email services, including a local platform known as “Expresso,” available to them for years.
But it wasn’t until the recent disclosures that many officials realized their value, said Marcos Melo, a manager at Serpro, the state-run communications company that created Expresso and provides the government with secure databases.
“Now people understand the risk you run of not protecting your communications,” said Melo. “When we started investing in Expresso six years ago, they said: ‘Why bother developing a new tool if Gmail exists and is free?’.”
The first wave of spying disclosures in July included documents showing the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency jointly ran satellite monitoring stations in 64 countries, including one based in a residential neighborhood of Brazil’s capital, Brasilia.
Coincidence or not, Brazil has made key decisions in recent weeks to gain more independence in the skies above.
Within weeks, it picked Thales Alenia Space, a consortium led by Europe’s largest defense electronics company, France’s Thales, to build a satellite that will be shared by Brazil’s government and armed forces.
The bidding was decided by Visiona, a new venture set up by state-led telecom company Telebras and Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer to operate the new satellite and build future ones.
The choice of Thales over a consortium of U.S. and Japanese companies raised eyebrows among some diplomats in Brasilia who wondered if the NSA disclosures were to blame.
Telebras president Caio Bonilha told Reuters the main factor in the decision was cost and not concerns that a U.S.-made satellite could be more susceptible to U.S. spying programs.
However, speaking broadly about recent company actions, he recognized that “now, security has become a top concern.”
Much of the Brazilian government’s communications, including those of the military, rely on a satellite owned by a company controlled by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Brazil cannot control its angle let alone the security of its channels.
The new satellite provided by Thales will be launched from neighboring French Guiana in 2016. The total cost, including the satellite, launch and insurance, will be $600 million to $650 million.
It will provide access to broad-band Internet service in remote parts of Brazil and extend the government’s digital networks to every corner of Latin America’s largest nation.
Brazil has also begun to establish direct fiber-optic connections with its South American neighbors - Uruguay has been connected, Argentina is next - to avoid government-to-government information passing through U.S. networks.
“The less your information travels around the world, the safer it will be,” said Bonilha.
Serpro, the state company that provides secure communications, also expects more adopters going forward.
Expresso is a communications suite with email, chat, video conferencing, file management and document exchange tools. It has 700,000 users, though only 60,000 in the federal government and just 1,000 in Rousseff’s presidential palace, for now. Other customers for the software include other state enterprises and private companies.
Serpro’s work developing Expresso version 3, with German IT company Metaways, has become a government priority, Melo said.
Expresso is based on open source software, which contrary to what one might think provides greater security because the code is known and can be fully checked for invasive activity, unlike proprietary software which has a secret code that could hide access by others to your data, which Melo said is the case with Google.
Google has denied that the U.S. government has access or a “back door” to the information stored in its data centers.
Brazil’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee called on Google, Facebook and Microsoft executives in Brazil to testify at a hearing probing their possible collaboration with the NSA. They flatly denied that their companies have played any such role.
Even under the bright lights of Brazil’s Congress, expectations of total protection against spying are muted.
“Espionage has existed ever since nations existed, but it has reached unimaginable dimensions with the NSA,” said committee chairman Senator Ricardo Ferraco, who backed a parliamentary inquiry launched last week into the NSA spying.
“But let’s not kid ourselves. However much we do, it will never be enough to stop U.S. electronic surveillance, because today’s technology is boundless,” the senator said.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brian Winter, Kieran Murray and Claudia Parsons