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Have a Nice Day, NSA: Brazil's "Mad Cow" Retaliation to U.S. Spying

Have a Nice Day, NSA: Brazil's "Mad Cow" Retaliation to U.S. Spying
Mon, 9/30/2013 - by Vanessa Barbara
This article originally appeared on The New York Times

At the opening of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Dilma Rousseff, the president of my country, Brazil, delivered a scolding speech in response to reports that the National Security Agency has monitored electronic communications of Brazilian citizens, members of government and private corporations. Like a displeased school principal, Ms. Rousseff seemed to speak directly to President Obama, who was waiting in the wings to deliver his own speech.

She called the surveillance program “a breach of international law” and “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 seemed personally offended when she demanded “explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated.” Last week, she called off a planned visit to the United States, after she learned that the N.S.A. had gained access to her own e-mails, telephone calls and text messages.

All in all, it was a nice example of what Brazilians call “Dilma Bolada,” or “Furious Dilma.” (A Rio de Janeiro publicist has even created a fake Twitter profile under that name, to make fun of our president’s famous short temper.)

Her strong response was likely more a symbolic position than a political act with practical outcomes, and some interpreted it as nothing more than a way of boosting her popularity for the presidential election next year. But it was well received in Brazil, where for the last four months people have been closely following the news about the secret documents on the spying program leaked by Edward J. Snowden.

The Brazilian newspaper O Globo first reported on the surveillance of Brazilian citizens in July. The series of articles, based on documents provided by Mr. Snowden to Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist living in Rio, detailed how the agency had established a data collection center in Brasília, systematically tapped into the local telecommunication network and intercepted the e-mail and telephone records of millions of citizens. Inside its own country, the N.S.A. needs a warrant to wiretap citizens. But not abroad. According to one document, Brazil is included in a group of key countries being closely monitored by the N.S.A. under the rubric “Friends, Enemies, or Problems?”

Like most Brazilians, I was annoyed to learn that the American government might have been gathering data from my computer and phone calls. But on the bright side, I am hoping that it has kept a backup of my files, since a few months ago I realized that I could no longer find an important video anywhere in my computer. (Mr. Obama, if you’re reading this, please send me the file “summer2012.wmv” as soon as you can.)

The United States has suggested that its interception of data also aims to protect other nations against terrorism. But Ms. Rousseff had an answer for that, too: “Brazil, Mr. President, knows how to protect itself.”

The country’s strategy on that matter does not limit itself to diplomatic grumpiness. Ms. Rousseff has also proposed establishing “a civilian multilateral framework for the governance and use of the Internet.” It would ensure “freedom of expression, security and respect for human rights” by protecting personal information online.

But for now, we citizens have our own plan. It has become something of a joke among my friends in Brazil to, whenever you write a personal e-mail, include a few polite lines addressed to the agents of the N.S.A., wishing them a good day or a Happy Thanksgiving. Sometimes I’ll add a few extra explanations and footnotes about the contents of the message, summarizing it and clarifying some of the Portuguese words that could be difficult to translate.

Other people have gone so far as to send nonsensical e-mails just to confuse N.S.A. agents. For example: first use some key words to attract their surveillance filters, like “chemical brothers,” “chocolate bombs” or “stop holding my heart hostage, my emotions are like a blasting of fundamentalist explosion” (one of my personal favorites, inspired by an online sentence-generator designed to confound the N.S.A.).

Then write indiscriminately to friends and acquaintances about serious stuff like: how Doc Brown stole plutonium from Libyan nationalists, or why poor Godzilla had to attack the City of New York. It is recommended to act as crazy as possible, in order to raise questions about your secret intentions.

I call this tactic “vaca louca.” (The term comes from mad cow disease, though it could also refer to a Brazilian song called “Levada louca” (“crazy rhythm”) by Ivete Sangalo, which most of us originally misheard as “A vaca louca” — but I’m digressing here.)

All this is to say that I found the news earlier this month about the actions of a group of Brazilian hackers perfectly appropriate. In an attempt to protest the N.S.A.’s surveillance programs, they accidentally attacked NASA’s Web site.

It’s all part of our Mad Cow Retaliation Plan.

Vanessa Barbara, a novelist, edits the literary Web site A Hortaliça and is a columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

Originally published by The New York Times

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