Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Reports alleging the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been partnering with companies to spy on Brazilians has heated up debate over a draft bill stuck in Congress since 2011 that might have helped prevent the alleged online snooping.
In London's Guardian and Brazilian newspaper O Globo, American journalist Glenn Greenwald recently disclosed the NSA has built a global espionage system in partnership with private companies, with Brazil being its main target in Latin America. The reports were based on documents provided by former NSA contractor, now whistleblower, Edward Snowden.
"The NSA has, for years, systematically tapped into the Brazilian telecommunication network and indiscriminately intercepted, collected and stored the email and telephone records of millions of Brazilians,” Greenwald wrote.
The reports cite the NSA's "FAIRVIEW" programme, which partners with an unidentified US telecom company, which in turn works with local telcoms in foreign countries. Through such business relations, the US telecom gains access to the communications of locals around the world, and then passes those onto the NSA, according to Greenwald.
|Glenn Greenwald broke the NSA surveillance scandal [Reuters]
"That the US government - in complete secrecy - is constructing a ubiquitous spying apparatus aimed not only at its own citizens, but all of the world's citizens, has profound consequences," said Greenwald. "It erodes, if not eliminates, the ability to use the internet with any remnant of privacy or personal security."
Brazil's leaders were not impressed after the stories broke. Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota expressed “deep concern” and vowed to bring up the allegations with the United States and United Nations.
"The Brazilian government is gravely concerned by the news that electronic and telephone communications of Brazilian citizens are the objective of espionage efforts by US intelligence agencies," a foreign ministry statement said.
The Brazilian Internet Bill of Civil Rights - Marco Civil da Internet in Portuguese- was drafted with the intent to establish principles, guarantees, rights and duties for internet use in Brazil, determining guidelines on municipal, state and federal levels.
After the NSA spying revelations broke, the Brazilian government of President Dilma Rousseff urged Congress to sign the internet bill into law. Some academics support such a move to prevent further spying.
"I have no doubt that this bill would have Brazil prevent this kind of monitoring," said Paulo Rená, a law researcher at Brasília University. "The government would have clear instruments to determine where right to privacy was violated. These specific articles of the bill could have helped prevent NSA violations."
Diego Canabarro is a visiting fellow at the National Center for Digital Government of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He agreed the draft bill could have helped block the NSA's snooping.
"Determining the kind of data and time during which companies can store it would put obstacles to the NSA accessing them, which could have prevented violations," Canabarro said.
Some critics have argued, however, the bill would be overly restrictive to police in criminal investigations. Others have said it would be ineffective in protecting the personal data of internet users.
Internet providers are partially free to decide which data they are willing to store, how they treat such data, and with whom they might share it.
The Internet Bill of Civil Rights was introduced to the Chamber of Deputies in 2011, after months of open online discussion of its articles, having received thousands of contributions from different sectors.
Henrique Eduardo Alves, the Chamber of Deputies president, has announced the bill could be voted on this week.
Joana Varon, a researcher at the Centre for Technology and Society of Getúlio Vargas Foundation, said Brazil currently has a legal framework gap concerning online data protection.
“Internet providers are partially free to decide which data they are willing to store, how they treat such data, and with whom they might share it," Varon said.
"General guidelines are mentioned in their terms of services, but some important details are not. This situation creates uncertainty for users and potential violation of their rights.”
The draft bill before Congress would address such gaps, according to Varon.
Internet service providers must store connection logs - including the connection duration and IP addresses - for one year if it becomes law. At the same time, providers are forbidden from storing emails, video, or voice communications, and the protection of people's private lives must be ensured, according to the bill.
Matter of concern
Canabarro expressed concern that telecom companies and application providers may not abide by the bill's privacy protections.
“Some of these companies provide the most used online services in the world, and under the argument of national security, the US may request access to different sorts of information,” he said.
Other critics said the law could also hamper law enforcement activities attempting to fight online crime.
“If one kind of company may store data and the other may not, we have a market reserve," said congressman and businessman Ricardo Izar. "If telecoms could also store applications logs, it would make it easier for the police to track them down on the web during investigations."
Alex Castro, a representative from SindiTeleBrasil telecoms union, also said the bill goes too far in its restrictions.
“Investigation of crimes online will be more difficult or not viable at all, because nobody will store application logs anymore. We don’t understand the asymmetry this bill introduces,” Castro said.
However, Canabarro argued it is important to establish the online rights of Brazilians before being able to set effective rules for fighting online crime.
|The NSA has reportedly spied on millions of Brazilians [Reuters]
“In this unregulated scenario, the more data companies can store, the easier it is to develop a lucrative business model. Violations, monitoring, spying and commercial exploitation of data are more likely in a context in which there is no minimal law regulating companies,” he said.
Rená said he does not consider the bill before Congress to favour one side or the other in the debate.
“I can choose not to use Google or Facebook, for example, but I need internet connection in any case. If connection providers could also store the services I use, they would be able to track anything down. An applications company cannot access connection logs, but a connection company is able to know the applications I use," he said.
"This bill is important not to allow internet providers to monitor communications more.”
Further complicating the issue is the conflict of interest behind the bill, said congressman and lawyer Alessandro Molon.
“If this is regulated, it would represent profit falls for telecoms. We have congressman who are afraid this bill will hurt this economic sector. You either side with users’ privacy or with connection providers' interests to profit from users' logs,” said Molon.
Rená said this issue also goes beyond Brazil's national borders.
“Brazil must take very serious steps in the multilateral level, because it is more likely that regulation initiatives will be denied by the US and allies. We also have countries that regulate the internet in a more authoritarian way, like China and North Korea for example, and we don’t seek that,” Rená said.
He said if the Internet Bill of Civil Rights passes, Brazil could promote it as an example for other countries to follow.
“Brazilian internet law would be a world leader, in content and the way it was democratically formulated.”
Paula Daibert is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil