Brazil takes NSA scandal to the UN

President Rousseff condemns 'global network of electronic espionage' and calls for international regulations

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013, in New York City.
John Moore/Getty Images

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff opened this year's U.N. General Assembly in New York Tuesday with a speech condemning a "global network of electronic espionage" -- a reference to recent allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted her communications, hacked into the state-owned Petrobras oil company's network and spied on Brazilians over Facebook and Google.

"The right to safety of citizens of one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country," Rousseff said, never mentioning the United States or the NSA by name.

She called for the establishment of an international framework governing Internet use and communications to build on a landmark July 2012 U.N. motion that extended human rights to the digital sphere.

"The United Nations must play a leading role in the effort to regulate the conduct of states with regard to these technologies," Rousseff said.

The July 2012 motion, which was supported by both Brazil and the United States, affirmed that "the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online."

Though he was in transit to the United Nations headquarters during most of Rousseff's speech, President Barack Obama offered a brief reply in his speech, which immediately followed his Brazilian counterpart's.

"We've begun to review the way that we gather intelligence," Obama said, in reference to the need to balance security and privacy concerns in the United States and abroad.

Earlier this month, Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who has written numerous stories based on classified information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, told the Brazilian news program "Fantastico" that the NSA had intercepted Rousseff's internal communications, according to a document Greenwald had obtained.

"It is clear in several ways that her communications were intercepted, including the use of DNI Presenter, which is a program used by NSA to open and read emails and online chats," he told The Associated Press in an email. He also detailed NSA interception of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's internal communications.

When news broke that the NSA had targeted Latin America's largest nation, Rousseff snubbed Obama by calling off a dinner in Washington scheduled for October.

The White House said in a statement that Obama "understands and regrets" Brazil’s reaction to U.S. intelligence activity and that he was committed to "move beyond this issue as a source of tension in our bilateral relationship."

Rousseff has not elaborated on her desire to see a framework for Internet regulation put in place, but Internet-freedom activists warn that deputizing an international body to regulate the Internet presents its own dangers.

Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House, applauded Rousseff for calling attention to NSA surveillance on the world stage but noted that "there are many authoritarian leaders who are looking for opportunities to restrict Internet freedom."

"Once you start calling for global laws to restrict certain violations or policies, you also open up the possibility of other kinds of unfortunate laws being tacked on as well," he said, pointing out that China, which heavily censors its Internet, has pushed for such regulation.

An Internet powerhouse in its own right, Brazil has the world's second most Twitter and YouTube users and the third most on Facebook. Brazil's Internet bandwidth is the fastest growing in the world, on pace to outstrip the United States.

Rousseff previously spoke about her country's plans to ramp up Internet security in response to the NSA scandal.

Michael Pizzi contributed reporting to this article with Al Jazeera and wire services

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