Brazil's ban on U.S. Internet services may prove futile

Experts doubt that Brazil's proposed efforts at cutting digital ties with the U.S. will actually keep the NSA at bay.

Brazil's government is considering installing new hardware locally to reduce the country's dependence on U.S. services for Internet access. The move comes in response to reports that the U.S. government had intercepted emails and phone calls of Brazilian citizens, its state-run oil company and the country's president, Dilma Rouseff.

In order to bypass the U.S., Brazil is considering several steps, including opening local data centers that would be subjected to the country’s privacy laws, removing sensitive data from the cloud and storing it locally, and potentially creating a BRICS cable connecting to the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok through a series of cables running through South Africa and Asia.

In addition, President Rousseff is pursuing legislation that would require major Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, to store all data gathered in Brazil in the country’s local data centers.

The efforts follow President Rousseff’s decision to postpone a scheduled trip to visit the U.S. this week and demand an apology from U.S. President Barack Obama after evidence of NSA spying in Brazil appeared in documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden earlier this month. The documents reportedly indicated that the NSA had spied on Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petrobas, as well as the office of President Rousseff. Others were named in the reports, including Google and Mexico’s new president Enrique Pena Nieto.

The efforts at Internet independence aren’t entirely new in the country. A bill introduced in 2012 called the “Internet Constitution” would require social media companies to delete Brazilians’ data once their profiles had been closed, and attempt to lay out a framework for Internet use among the country’s citizens, according to Reuters. President Rousseff reportedly asked that the plan to open new local data centers be incorporated into the bill.

Leonardo Santos, a spokesman for Brazilian legislator Alessandro Molon, who has pushed the Internet Constitution since it was first written, told Reuters that the proposed changes may be “difficult,” but are not impossible. Others doubted that Brazil would be able to contain all data created in Brazil, simply because of the global nature of the Internet, which allows Brazilian citizens to exchange data with those in other countries.

Meanwhile, others doubt that the efforts will actually prevent the NSA from accessing Brazilian data, considering that the agency is believed to have backdoors into major U.S. Internet services.

"They are a step towards getting out [of] the very strong control the U.S. has over the Internet infrastructure," Dr Joss Wright, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Oxford's Internet Institute, told the BBC. "But if you send an email from your encrypted Brazilian provider to somebody else who has a Gmail account then Google is getting to read the thread of information anyway.”

As for the BRICS cable, Dr. Wright added that the Brazilian government “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."

Making matters more difficult is Brazil’s current Internet infrastructure. In a 2012 report that ranked 30 countries by the risk in their data center operations, Brazil ranked 30th. The report, which was composed by real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield and engineering consultancy hurleypalmerflatt, cited the country’s high costs of electricity and poor education levels as the main factors dragging down the country’s data center quality, according to Reuters.

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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