Is the only way to escape the prying eyes of the National Security Agency to rebuild the Internet?
That appears to be the question on the minds of politicians in Brazil, where plans have been announced to build from scratch key parts of the country’s web infrastructure that the country’s leaders fear have been deeply infiltrated by the NSA. With a new communications satellite in the works and plans to lay fiber-optic cables connecting Brazil with Europe and Africa, Brazil’s campaign raises a tantalizing prospect: shutting the door to American spies by reclaiming control of the Internet’s physical components.
But will it work?
The Brazilian plan consists of two main elements: a new geostationary satellite for defense and strategic communications, and freshly laid underwater cables to carry data from Brazil to Africa and Europe. By launching the satellite, which will be intended for both civil and military use, Telebras, one of the telecommunications companies behind the venture, argues that “high-speed Internet will be extended to the entire nation and will ensure the sovereignty of its civil and military communications.” Meanwhile, the underwater cables seek to undermine one of the NSA’s key tools: tapping into the communications lines that serve as the backbone of the Internet.
According to documents provided by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the NSA has engaged in widespread spying activity in Latin America and has made Brazil a focus of its intelligence-gathering. The revelations have sparked widespread outrage in Latin America and have Brazilian politicians, already under pressure from intense street protests earlier this summer, scrambling to stand up to U.S. power. To that end, what Telebras calls communications “sovereignty” has received renewed attention. “Brazil is in favor of greater decentralization: Internet governance must be multilateral and multisectoral with a broader participation,” Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo told a congressional panel.
That sentiment was on full display Tuesday, when Secretary of State John Kerry and his retinue arrived for a meeting in Brasilia — only to be greeted by angry protesters yelling, “Go away, spies.” In a news conference with Kerry, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said that allegations of U.S. spying risked “casting a shadow of distrust” between the United States and Brazil. Kerry promised that Brazilians would receive answers about the scope of U.S. activity — not that the NSA’s activities would be scaled back but rather that they would be explained. In a news conference last week, President Obama laid out a similar strategy for dealing with fallout from Snowden’s revelations and outlined what amounted to more of a PR blitz aimed at shoring up support for the NSA rather than offering ways to curtail its powers.
Confronted with that reality, it’s not surprising that politicians in Brazil, a country with aspirations for becoming a global power, should seek out ways to circumvent the NSA’s ability to access to basic structures that make up the Internet. Whatever Kerry said behind closed doors, Brazilians were clearly not happy with it, and Bernardo threatened Wednesday that Brazil may take its case to the United Nations.
But how much Brazil can really do to avoid the long reach of the NSA? In his report for the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, Glenn Greenwald revealed that Brazil was the NSA’s biggest Latin American target. Have a look at the map below of global undersea cables, and you’ll quickly understand why:
As you can see, Brazil serves as an important hub for cable traffic across the Atlantic. Hubs like these have been of crucial importance for the NSA’s intelligence-gathering and, as is clear from this map, no such hub is more important than the United States. NSA Director Keith Alexander has described the fact that a huge amount of Internet traffic passes through the United States as the intelligence community’s “home field advantage.” So even if Brazil lays down its own fiber-optic cables and prevents the NSA from gaining access to those cables — no small feat — countless other nodes remain at which the NSA can tap into Internet communications.
So what does this all mean for Brazil’s forthcoming satellite? Could it help protect the country from NSA snooping? In a word, no. Consider this: At its most basic level, a satellite is a fancy relay station that bounces information from one part of the earth to another. In the case of a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit — the kind Brazil plans to launch — it sits in a predetermined location above the earth and beams data back and forth. This is a tempting target for any hacker, let alone the supremely powerful hacker collective otherwise known as the NSA. For example, in October 2008, a foreign power — probably China — was able to gain control of a U.S. research satellite. The hackers never issued any commands to the satellite but could have done so had they wished. At a security conference in January last year, the Spanish cybersecurity researcher Leonardo Nve explained how he had managed to gain access to satellite-borne Internet communications with a few tricks and about $75 dollars in hardware. “What’s interesting about this is that it’s very, very easy,” Nve said. “Anyone can do it: phishers or Chinese hackers … it’s like a very big Wi-Fi network that’s easy to access.”
Now, any sensitive Internet communication over such a connection will probably be heavily encrypted, but do you really think the NSA doesn’t have the ability to break the encrypted messages that it’s interested in? Brazilian politicians are probably hoping so, but you shouldn’t count on it.