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Brazil’s New Underwater Data Cable to Portugal Is Still Likely Not NSA-Proof

The NSA could still tap the Brazilian-made cables on land or underwater, experts say.
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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's remarks at an October campaign event, in which she said a new underwater data cable being built from Brazil to Portugal would be made by Brazilian companies to protect it from US "espionage," were widely seen as a slam on the US National Security Agency's spying tactics.

Both the Latin Post and Bloomberg News reported that the project, an underwater fiber-optic internet and phone cable on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, was being built by the state-owned telecom company Telebras, rather than an American company like CISCO, to ensure that the NSA could not manipulate it. Rousseff publicly rebuked President Obama at a speech at the UN in 2013 over Edward Snowden's revelations about spying.


But experts in telecom security said today that the NSA could likely tap into any cable it wants to, whether a US company built it or not.

"I think you have to assume the NSA can still tap the cables," said Adam Segal, director of the Council on Foreign Relations' digital and cyberspace program. "Lots of companies are advertising themselves as NSA-proof, but my sense from the security community is that the NSA can eventually get into anything."

Brazil's decision to have a state-owned company build the cable could make it marginally more difficult for the NSA, Segal said, because the country's data would no longer route through servers in Miami, which is the way it has been going in the past.

"It's not going to be NSA-proof but it will raise the costs of the NSA," he said.

"Brazil's idea is meant to assuage a deeply suspicious general public within the South American country of US preponderance of power in the international economy"

But the real reason Brazil is likely keeping the project in-house is to be seen as standing up to the US and giving contracts to domestic companies, according to Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

"Some of Brazil's response is trying to be vocal and independent from the US, a rejection of the US in certain areas, and also to give an advantage to domestic firms," he said. "They are likely using the NSA spying as a way of doing something they might have been planning to do anyway."


Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow of cyberspace cooperation at the EastWest Institute, says that the decision is twofold.

"Brazil's idea is meant to assuage a deeply suspicious general public within the South American country of US preponderance of power in the international economy, and smacks of technological nationalism — one of the many unintended consequences of the Snowden revelations," he said.

In fact, submarine fiber-optic cables are of vital interest to US national security officials, both for the information they can obtain from them — particularly about the Middle East — and the vulnerability they represent, according to experts. If the cables are cut or damaged, US networks can be compromised or go completely dark.

"There have been projects studying how to defend the undersea cables, mostly from terror threats," Segal said. "For example, if you know where they're coming on shore, you could blow up those facilities which could take them offline."

As much as 99 percent of transcontinental internet traffic travels through undersea cables, not satellites as many people assume, Gady pointed out.

If the NSA did want to get into a proprietary cable, it would likely try and gain access to the cable where it connects to land, in computer centers in cities in Brazil or Portugal, though it could send submarines and divers to the bottom of the ocean, the experts said.

The NSA could contract out a private company to do the work, but it would be a "large-scale operation" that would take significant resources and computing power, and that in his view, the NSA is not "staying up late" worrying about the Brazilian cable.


"I would suspect there are certain links in the Middle East that I suspect the NSA is more interested in tapping and gaining more large scale intelligence from. For other things you are going to be targeting an individual or an organization, a particular account or service, and that's where the NSA is seeing more value for its investment," he said.

The NSA's work has been made more difficult in other areas since the revelations, experts said, including companies encrypting their data and turning the keys over to users so they are no longer responsible if the government comes to them demanding personal information.

"That kind of fallout is going to have much more substantial impact on the government wanting to have access to private citizen data. That's the tension they're probably more worried about," Castro said.

And though the Brazilian cable project is not a clear example of economic fallout from the Snowden revelations, there are still other examples where countries have refused to work with American companies because of concerns over the NSA.

"Germany did not renew a government contract with Verizon and said the reason was Snowden, and the Chinese have said they're not going to use US servers in certain industries. But it's mainly potential [losses], because it will take a long time to swap out [servers], and you need to have local alternative," Segal said, noting that one recent estimate put the potential losses at around $30 billion.

The NSA Has Revealed New Details About Its Exhaustive Search of Edward Snowden's Emails. Read more here. 

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @ColleenCurry

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