Eavesdropping: Where to draw the line?

Monday, September 9, 2013

It shouldn’t raise eyebrows that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been snooping into communications at home and abroad. After all, nations do spy on each other - a point which President Barack Obama alluded to in an interview in Sweden while on his way to the G20 summit in St Petersburg.

Besides, since September 2001, terrorism has become even more of a concern for internal security – and a motive for many states to expand their range of powers.

All true. But the "diary of the good spy," if it were to exist, would probably state that knowing and doing isn’t the same as admitting – or agreeing with. In the geopolitical arena, the unspoken rule is that the things everyone puts under the rug must remain under the rug. Do it, but don’t get caught.

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However, it’s far more delicate when the content of citizens’ and presidents’ data is monitored, apparently on a constant basis, by the security apparatus of another state. This is a violation of privacy and sovereignty. And those affected really should speak out against it. Overreactions aside, that’s what Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has done.

Let’s roll back in time a little to put things in context and understand why Brazil has taken its position in the NSA case. First of all, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist from the UK’s Guardian newspaper who received the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and has been gradually publishing them, has lived in Rio de Janeiro for years.

So it makes sense that some of Greenwald’s reports focus on his current homeland. In June, the journalist published reports that the country was allegedly the most spied-upon nation by the NSA in Latin America. Other countries had also been monitored.

The documents implied a vast network of software created specifically to spy on local communications, the collaboration of internet companies offering services in the region and even the existence of NSA teams operating on the ground. Brazil, of course, reacted with indignation. Latin American leaders followed in the criticism.

Investigations were opened, telcos and internet companies such as Facebook, Google and others denied involvement, and authorities moved to change local data storage regulations, for Brazilian citizens' data to be stored within the country. Brazil has also pushed a proposal for a global multilateral internet body to ensure data privacy.

A few weeks later, Greenwald’s partner and Brazilian citizen David Miranda was detained for nine hours under schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000 at London’s Heathrow airport. Miranda was in transit from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro. He was later released, but his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles were seized.

Going after the messenger? Not a clever step. Journalists are not to blame. On the whole, the event just became a story of press harassment.

The incident generated a spat between the UK and Brazil, with the latter formally protesting against what it saw as an “abuse.” Greenwald, for his part, promised to release even more documents on NSA espionage involving the UK.

And then we get to the cherry on the top of the cake. On September 1, a major Brazilian TV news program report was aired, co-authored by Greenwald, which stated that the NSA had spied on Rousseff and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto's direct communications.

Rousseff was outraged. Mexico summoned its US ambassador and asked for clarification. During the G20 summit, Rousseff and Obama had a brief talk to discuss the case. Obama promised explanations and Rousseff promised to take the case to the UN. She also said her scheduled state visit to Washington, slated for October, now "depends on the political conditions that President Obama creates."

An overreaction? Maybe. But behind that, there is history and some resentment. Since the US support of military regimes in the past across the region, particularly in Brazil and Chile, many countries have become very sensitive to anything that may appear to be US interventionism. And this can be even more strongly felt in nations with left-leaning leaders, such as Brazil. Rousseff herself was tortured during the Brazilian dictatorship.

The whole NSA case should also be seen from a broader perspective and evoke pertinent reflections regarding privacy, and what that means. How do we balance freedom and security? What should we give up in exchange for, say, greater protection? How safe are communications in an interconnected world?

All in all, it doesn't seem that eavesdropping will be ever scrapped. Nor should it be. But it can be modelled to more resemble Ian Fleming's James Bond than George Orwell's Big Brother.