Corporate Wrinkles in Snowden Saga May Prompt Brazil to Become More Vigilant

01/06/2014 05:19 pm ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014
  • Nikolas Kozloff Author, 'Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left'

As further revelations continue to leak out from the Edward Snowden scandal, it has become increasingly clear that the National Security Agency (or N.S.A.) has morphed into a gigantic private public behemoth, intent on using the power of corporate America to extend its leverage. That, at least, seems to be the implication from a recent Reuters story, which reports that the N.S.A. signed a secret $10 million contract with computer security firm RSA to enhance the U.S. government's efforts to break into widely used computer products.

According to the story, the N.S.A. got RSA, which is currently a subsidiary of computer storage company EMC, to create a "back door" in its encryption software that would facilitate the super secret spy agency's espionage campaigns. Reuters writes that the RSA deal demonstrates how the N.S.A. enhances surveillance through "the systematic erosion of security tools." Indeed, N.S.A. documents leaked by Snowden show that the U.S. government has sought to take advantage of "commercial relationships" in order to advance its clandestine activities.

Inflammatory Disclosures

Though the Reuters story will probably lead to further domestic calls for reform of the N.S.A., the report could also have international implications and further erode Washington's standing in the rest of the world. In Brazil, for example, the Dilma Rousseff government may regard the Reuters story as yet more evidence of a U.S. spy agency run amok. Indeed, RSA has a branch in the financial center of São Paulo and has invested a lot of effort in developing its software in Brazil.

Even before recent disclosures about RSA became public, a spate of reports detailed the N.S.A.'s heavy intelligence targeting of Brazil. In July, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald reported that the U.S. spy agency had conducted massive electronic eavesdropping on the country. Specifically, the N.S.A. targeted the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the South American nation's mission to the United Nations in New York. What is more, the N.S.A. worked in tandem with the Central Intelligence Agency to set up a spying operation in Brasilia.

Other reports reveal that the N.S.A. spied on the Brazilian Ministry of Energy and Mines and the partly state-owned oil firm Petrobras. The Americans carried out their Brazilian surveillance from a remote spying island located in the mid-Atlantic. To make matters worse, the N.S.A. even intercepted President Rousseff's personal communications.

EMC's Brazilian Branch

Such reports, when added to the recent RSA imbroglio, could severely rattle U.S.-Brazilian relations. In 2011, EMC invested a whopping $100 million to launch its own "Brazil Big Data Research and Development Center," located in Rio's Technology Park. Specifically, RSA promotes its own "SecurID" Display Card in Brazil, which is supposedly designed to assist financial institutions and customers in obtaining secure online accounts. The ID may be carried in a wallet or purse, thus protecting consumers "by strong authentication in an easy-to-use manner."

On its website, EMC touts its cloud computing services as well as "Big Data and Trust." By taking an "accelerated journey" to cloud computing, EMC states, clients will be able to store their information "in an agile, trusted and cost-efficient way." EMC furthermore brags of its own "audacity" and its ability to "make a difference in the world."

Such claims are highly suspect, however, in light of recent disclosures which have rocked the company. In Brazil, RSA operates in tandem with TIVIT, an IT and business outsourcing company, to assist clients in such diverse areas as finance, manufacturing and utilities. In light of recent revelations about N.S.A. spying on the Brazilian energy sector, some of EMC's aims and objectives raise eyebrows. According to the company web site, EMC Brazil's main purpose is to "conduct applied research related to Big Data challenges encountered within the Oil & Gas industry."

Privatization of Intelligence Gathering in Latin America

If the Rousseff government has not done so by now, it will probably take a hard look at RSA and its links to the N.S.A. If anything, recent disclosures may prompt Brazilians to shun U.S. companies which are joined in an incestuous relationship with Washington's national security state. However, the recent RSA scandal underlines a broader trend, that is to say, the overall privatization of the U.S. intelligence apparatus in Latin America. Indeed, TIVIT has operations not only in Brazil but in other left-leaning countries in the region such as Argentina and Bolivia. Not to be outdone, EMC has headquarters in both Argentina and Venezuela.

As I discussed in an earlier al-Jazeera column, Washington has promoted a revolving door culture involving both private contractors and official government agencies. Take, for example, Edward Snowden's own company Booz Allen Hamilton which has provided IT modernization and support to key Justice Department agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.). In Latin America, Booz Allen supports the U.S.-funded drug war by providing IT support to the Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.). What is more, the U.S. Air Force awarded Booz Allen a contract in 2011 to research and design joint operations between the U.S. Northern Command and the Mexican military.

Meanwhile, the Stratfor corporation has provided confidential intelligence services to key U.S. agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Marines and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Recently, whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks disclosed millions of Stratfor e-mails which revealed the inner workings of the corporation. Like Booz Allen, Stratfor helps to shore up the U.S. defense agenda in Latin America, and correspondence suggests that Stratfor personnel have been actively seeking out intelligence in such countries as Venezuela.

At long last, Edward Snowden seems to have sparked a vital public debate about the U.S. national security state and its activities in South America. It may not be so easy, however, to disentangle the thorny web of corporate influence. To really reform the intelligence apparatus, the public must first unravel and sort out the nation's Byzantine maze of public and private spying interests and their unsavory agenda in countries like Brazil.