Logical For BRICS Countries To Build Their Own Internet Infrastructure, Circumventing U.S. Surveillance
The so-called Emerging Economies – the BRICS countries – have decided to build their own Internet infrastructure, circumventing American and European wiretapping points. While this is mostly skillful geopolitical play, it spells opportunity for civil liberties online that should be harnessed.
Many have been furious over the United States’ arrogance in violating people’s privacy with the increasing amount of NSA revelations – people all over the world are affected and angry. The political leaders of Europe has been surprisingly quiet – until you realize that they can’t speak out about it without getting questions from the media about their own involvement, and therefore, they’d rather talk about the weather.
Not so with the political leaders of the so-called Global South, the so-called Emerging Economies. More accurately portrayed as “the countries actually prevented from rising to the top”, it’s a set of countries that the West – read the U.S., assisted by Europe – has been striving to keep from displacing them as king of the hill by their own power.
The President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, is furious. Not only has she cancelled a state visit to the United States and Barack Obama, which is highly notable in itself, but she has also realized that the US’ ability to wiretap the world is largely dependent on the US’ position as the world’s Internet switchboard. Practically all the intercontinental Internet traffic passes through the United States, making it near-trivial to wiretap en route.
It was also uncovered that the NSA had been wiretapping the phonecalls of the Brazilian president, which didn’t help politically. But this is where things get interesting. While it may sound respectless in the extreme, this is the kind of things spy agencies should be doing. Governments should be spying on governments, and a president is arguably part of a foreign government. They’re just not supposed to get caught doing it.
However, spying on literally the entire world – every civilian who is using digital technology – is the real transgression here, but the Brazilian president is skillfully using that anger for political means to give privacy rights for her government and her people a chance.
Yesterday, the BRICS cable was announced.
It’s a new high-capacity underwater Internet connection that – unlike every other underwater cable – does not come ashore in New York. Instead, it connects the BRICS countries directly to each other, going from Brazil, around of the Cape of Good Hope, northeast up to India, alongside the Chinese coast and up to eastern Russia.
The BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa, and China – are seen as so-called “Emerging Economies”; they are where you invest high-risk, high-return. They are also the countries prevented from climbing to the top and replacing the United States and Europe as kings of the hill, increasingly to the understandable annoyance of said countries.
Hence, the BRICS cable would connect these countries, and deliberately circumvent the United States and Europe, connecting the countries directly by high-capacity fiber. This means that Internet traffic can circumvent the U.S. NSA’s wiretapping points, and that the heads of state of these countries can easier deploy countermeasures to American and European spy agencies.
However, we should not think this is a humanitarian effort from everybody involved. This is a geopolitical game. Do you really think Russia wouldn’t have its own wiretapping points if it could? How about China, with the famous Chinese Firewall? This is about the geopolitical power game, and President Rousseff is skillfully using the outrage over the NSA’s spying to build an alternative infrastructure – but one that is just as easily wiretapped, and that goes through countries that have not been late to the game of wiretapping themselves. It is worth remembering that Putin is ex-KGB, for example.
In the end, the ordinary Joes like you and I still won’t have any idea which way our communications take, whether it therefore passes one or several wiretapping points, and if it does, whether such a wiretapping point flies a Russian flag, a Chinese flag, or the star-spangled banner.
But President Rousseff’s rightful indignation is not just skilled political play; it is also very useful for us who fight for civil liberties online. By proposing a huge infrastructure investment under the flag of privacy, she sends a strong signal to the world that poorer nations are now prepared to invest real money into civil liberties.
This sends a message of moral high ground that the U.S. and Europe ignore at their own peril. They cannot afford geopolitically to lose the self-image of being the most civilized, even if that self-image is a complete mirage.
So even if President Rousseff’s move is grounded in political self-preservation in the ruthless geopolitical game, the move is still very good for civil liberties. I was about to write civil liberties online, but there’s really no such thing anymore – it’s not meaningful to separate civil liberties offline or online; there’s only civil liberties.
And as usual, until today’s techno-illiterate political leaders understand that offline rights apply online too, privacy online remains your own responsibility. A cable going through China and Russia won’t be less wiretapped than one going through New York.