Monday, July 8, 2013

Hello, Brazil?

“If al-Qaeda is calling you, we want to know why.”

That, and I apologize if I am paraphrasing, was a previous president’s defense of the NSA spying program. I don’t know how many people believed that the NSA was actually focused on al-Qaeda when they heard that line, but if it strained credulity then, it becomes exceedingly unlikely with the revelation that after China, the NSA’s top overseas target has been Brazil.

China and Brazil are many things, but al-Qaeda bases? The emphasis on Brazil especially suggests that the NSA’s intentions have little to do with security, and are more commercial in nature. The scale of the NSA’s reported Brazil efforts implies that the NSA’s business there is not so much industrial espionage — you can steal business secrets by intercepting mere hundreds of telephone calls or email messages — but what might better be characterized as consumer research.

What else would you assume if you hear that an organization has been looking at messages among millions of Brazilians?

The one thing that is especially notable about Brazil is its limited dependence on international corporations, when compared to the other large economies of the world. Partly this is an accident of location, but partly too it is the result of political philosophies of past decades, as leaders looked for ways to make the country more self-sufficient.

Brazil has the potential to be economically more self-sufficient than most of the countries of the world. So is it this independent streak and can-do spirit that scares the NSA? Is a secret U.S. government program looking for avenues by which it might make Brazil more dependent on products the United States might sell?

It sounds far-fetched, I know. But compare it to the official story, that the NSA is looking for international terrorists on the back streets of Brasilia and the beaches of Rio, and it starts to sound possible. I suppose there are other possible explanations for the NSA’s special interest in Brazil, but the search for al-Qaeda is not one of them.