In 2013, information security expert Edward Snowden's revelations about the United States' global communications surveillance scheme had strong repercussions, to the point that President Barack Obama paid an impromptu visit to Chancellor Angela Merkel to explain that it wasn't true that cellphone of Germany's leader was being monitored full time. The tension that arose from the event led to consequences such as the expulsion of a senior CIA agent from German territory, but diplomatic relations in the countries tended towards pragmatic cordiality.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was also the target of similar actions, with added aggravations such as the espionage of Brazilian giant Petrobras and the energy resources of the Brazilian territory as a whole. While Petrobras quickly withdrew from the issue saying it would invest more capital in protecting its data and that no important information had been compromised, Rousseff responded by canceling an official visit to Washington. Since then the diplomatic relationship between Brazil and the US has been even more complicated than it was previously. After two years of no public interaction between presidents, a visit in 2015 strangely did not include a formal apology for the espionage, just a statement that it would no longer occur.
Initially, a series of reactions were thought up by Brazil to free the country from the dependence of its Internet traffic on US cables and servers, where this content was being intercepted. Three years later, we can highlight two projects of this kind that appear to have caught on: the Geostationary Defense and Strategic Communications Satellite (or SGDC) and the transoceanic cable linking Brazil to Portugal. Both projects have functions that would somewhat mitigate the need for Brazilian traffic to be directed to the north of the continent, which while not effective in all situations, could generate some changes in data traffic dynamics in the region.
SGDC is a an initiative that comes from a government-stimulated joint venture that acts under the name Visiona Space Technology, made up of Telebras and Embraer, and is supported by actors from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). With a definitive launch scheduled for 2017, the main intent of the project would be to provide universal Internet access within Brazilian territory as part of the National Broadband Plan, but a relevant matter is that this “represents the opportunity for Brazil to ensure sovereignty in its strategic communications, both in the civil and military areas, ”as stated by Telebras president Caio Bonilha.
While meeting a demand to overcome difficulties encountered in forming a solid fiber optic structure that covers the entire breadth of the country with Internet access, the project stands as a mechanism for trying not to repeat the espionage of yore. In addition to bringing a concrete statement of intention to maintain Brazilian sovereignty and being directly overseen by the Ministry of Defense, the SGDC also appears to be an attempt to continue the Brazilian ambitions to have a consolidated space project, a goal that had been shy and disjointed in Rousseff's government.
But the narrative does not necessarily validate itself. The development of the satellite is being carried out by French-Italian Thales Alenia Space, where selected Brazilian engineers accompany the project design through a technology transfer clause. Such engineers are expected to serve as leaders in an eventual truly Brazilian project. Most of the pieces used in the construction don't have a national origin, and the French company Ariane Space will launch the satellite. In other words, the sovereignty of the project is somewhat limited, and at the moment it only exchanges US leadership for a French one, with forecasts that Thales will be co-responsible for the operation of technology centers and courses in Brazil.
The 5,900-kilometer Brazil-Portugal transoceanic cable, costing 250 million dollars, is quite clear in its intention to create a direct data bridge between Europe and South America. This is particularly meaningful because before 2013's revelations, the intention of Telebras was actually to devise methods of connecting Brazil more directly to the United States in order to increase the speed of content delivery from one country to another, a plan that has been clearly abandoned.
The connection is intended to start from Fortaleza, Ceará, and reach Lisbon in 2018, allowing the transmission of a vast amounts of information, as well as providing access to Internet Exchange Points (points to which Internet providers connect to optimize their operation) in the cities of Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London and Paris, which are some of the largest in the world once the United States is removed from the equation. In this case, the project will also be the responsibility of a joint venture composed of Telebras and Spanish IslaLink Submarine Cables, as well as a second unspecified Brazilian company.
According to Brazilian Telecommunications Minister André Figueiredo, market leaders Google and Facebook have already shown interest in using cable in their operations, which is essential for cable financing to be based on the commercialization of its traffic. He continued by stating that there is a trend of expansion of digital communications between Brazil and Europe, and that the action could facilitate other partnerships between institutions from Brazil and the European Union.
Some questions about cable design have no clear answers. There is an implication that the European Union is somewhat more exempt than the United States on the issue of global espionage, something that the revelation that Germany also carried out digital espionage does not help corroborate, although the question still calls for more studies. Indicators are lacking that Europe has real gains to offer in the security aspect, and the entrepreneurial character of the project seems more evident than that of protecting Brazilian data.
In this sense of improving infrastructure and diversifying traffic, even greater benefits could be achieved later on if the cable was designed to reach Ireland, which would serve to improve the quality of network access in Brazil. Objectively, the expansion of initiatives such as Amazônia Conectada (Connected Amazon), which aims to connect the state of Amazonas to the grid through cables specifically built and compatible with forest realities, could take precedence over the transoceanic cable and create better regional integration with countries that border the northwest of Brazil, to eventually bring everyone to the Fortaleza-Lisboa venture.
The bottom line is that the very nature of the Internet, the way it is structured, and the way we use it make the solution more complicated than simply creating a new cable or satellite, because the US presence in the network is very strong, and that will not change. It makes sense to look at such projects as infrastructure expansion vectors and pathways for technology diversification and democratization, but it is also essential to consider that there is a good deal of diplomatic bravado involved in the matter. Solving the problem of digital espionage may be impossible, and much more planning will be required to mitigate it.