Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 30 September 2013

Strong attack on US internet spying

The United Nations General Assembly opened last week with an electrifying speech by the Brazilian President who attacked US internet spying, with US President Obama in the audience.


 Internet spying by the United States government became a major issue at the United Nations General Assembly last week when political leaders heard a blistering attack by the Brazilian President who was visibly angry about how her country and her own office have been targets by cyber-snooping activities.

She called the US action a breach of international law, a grave violation of human rights and civil liberties, and a disrespect for national sovereignty.

It was condemnation in the strongest terms at the highest political forum in the world, with UN and commercial TV stations beaming the speech live.

The surveillance issue, which has caused ripples with continuous revelations in the media emerging from whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s files, has now reached the United Nations.

And in the most spectacular fashion.  It was an extraordinary scene when President Dilma Rousseff gave the opening speech among the government leaders gathered for the annual UN General Assembly summit.

Traditionally, Brazil’s President speaks first, followed by the United States President.

Thus, Barrack Obama could not avoid hearing her speech.


Many had expected President Rousseff to touch on the internet spying issue, since she had strongly criticised the US when the media broke the news on specific instances of US internet surveillance on the Brazilian President’s office, other departments including the Brazilian Mission to the UN, and the national oil company Petrobas.  She recently cancelled a state visit to Washington.

But her speech and performance was far beyond what was anticipated.  With the atmosphere electrifying in the packed hall of leaders, the Brazilian President cut out the usual diplomatic niceties while addressing one of the most sensitive issues to have emerged globally in recent years.

She called ita matter of great importance and gravity….the global network of electronic espionage that has caused indignation and repudiation in public opinion around the world.”

President Rousseff described the internet spying as creating “a situation of grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties; of invasion and capture of confidential information concerning corporate activities, and especially of disrespect to national sovereignty.”

She started by laying the foundation of her argument:  “A sovereign nation can never establish itself to the detriment of another sovereign nation.

“The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country. The arguments that the illegal interception of information and data aims at protecting nations against terrorism cannot be sustained.”

Rousseff said that she fought against authoritarianism and censorship, and thus has to uncompromisingly defend the right to privacy of individuals and the sovereignty
of her country.

“In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression
and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy. In the absence of the respect for
sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among Nations,” she added.

The President’ speech touched on three actions.  First, Brazil had asked the US for explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated.

Second, Brazil is planning actions to defend itself from the spying.  It will “adopt legislation, technologies and mechanisms to protect us from the illegal interception of communications and data.”

Third, she proposed international action, saying:  “Information and telecommunication technologies cannot be the new battlefield between States. Time is ripe to create the conditions to prevent cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war, through espionage, sabotage, and attacks against systems and infrastructure of other countries.”

Stating that the UN must play a leading role to regulate the conduct of States with regard to these technologies, she called for the setting up of “a civilian multilateral framework for the governance and use of the Internet and to ensure the effective protection of data that travels through the web.”

She proposed multilateral mechanisms for the worldwide network, based on the principles of freedom of expression, privacy and human rights; open, multilateral and democratic governance; universality; cultural diversity; and neutrality of the network,

guided only by technical and ethical criteria, with no restrictions allowed on political, commercial, religious grounds.

After her speech, delegates who hoped that President Obama would respond were disappointed.  He did not refer to the Brazilian President’s address made only a few minutes before.  He made only a passing reference to the issue, saying “we are reviewing the way we gather intelligence.”

The Brazilian President’s speech came at the right time and venue, since people worldwide have been increasingly troubled or outraged by the extent of cyber-spying revealed by the media.

The issue is even more serious for developing countries.  The media reports indicate that there are double standards, with the US spying programme requiring a special court procedure for opening data on individual US citizens, while there is no such procedure for residents outside the US, and thus the surveillance is comprehensive for the world outside the US, with the citizens, companies and government offices all being targets. 

Moreover, the media reports show that the US actions do not stop at surveillance. There are also schemes to engage in cyber actions or attacks.

The Guardian in June reported on a leaked directive from President Obama to his security and intelligence officials to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for US cyber-attacks.

The directive reveals plans for operations “with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging".

The Washington Times on 31 August revealed that US intelligence agencies carried out 231 offensive cyber operations, as part of a campaign using the internet as “a theatre of spying, sabotage and war”, citing leaked documents on intelligence agencies’ budgets.   

President Dilma’s speech at the UN indicates Brazil plans follow-up moves in the UN for setting up a multilateral system to regulate the use and misuse of the internet.  This would be a timely international response to the recent revelations.