Brazil’s public anger over spy allegations may be for show: experts

The Brazilian government was forced to defend its own espionage while remaining the loudest critic of the NSA programs that have aggressively targeted communications in Brazil, including the personal phone and email of President Dilma Rousseff, who cancelled a state visit to Washington in response. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

VANCOUVER – Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff is demanding Canada explain why one of its spy agencies was monitoring communications of the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME). Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he’s “very concerned” there could be economic espionage carried out on Canada’s behalf.

READ MORE: Canadian spies targeted Brazil ministry: report

But some intelligence experts say most world leaders are likely aware they’re being spied on because they’re likely spying on other countries too.

“I think the Brazilians are sophisticated enough to know that their key sectors, which compete globally, are going to be targeted for economic intelligence,” said Martin Rudner, who was the founding director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University.

The allegation that Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) collected metadata from MME and state-owned Petrobras came out in a Brazilian television news investigation and was based on documents provided by U.S. intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden.

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READ MORE: What’s the oversight of Canada’s electronic spy agency?

Rudner said CSEC’s mandate is to collect foreign intelligence that is in Canada’s national interest and that includes economic intelligence as much as it does security intelligence.

He said monitoring Brazil’s mining, oil and gas sectors is very much in Canada’s interest.

“If Brazil does find and exploit oil from offshore developments and natural gas from offshore developments, the natural market for the Brazilians would be the United States of America — which happens to be, of course, the major export market currently for Canada’s oil and gas exports,” Rudner told Global News.

James Cox, Vice-President of Academic Programs for the Canadian Military Intelligence Association, said Rousseff was probably reacting to the Globo TV investigation with tough words for Canada (as she did last month when she learned the U.S. was monitoring her communications) because she would have faced “tough political questions” at home had she not.

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“I don’t think.. Brazil has to have had Edward Snowden or the press or any other organization tell them that Canada has been carrying out surveillance on their signals because I think the Brazilians were aware of that,” Cox said in a telephone interview.

He said her posturing in the press probably won’t amount to much more than just that.

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WATCH: Canada’s relationship with Brazil takes a hit after spy allegations ermerge. Jacques Bourbeau reports.

“I would speculate that apart from complaining in the press, if she wanted to take it any place official like the UN… I would expect she would kind of run into a number of states who would say ‘forget about it,'” Cox said.

“If she’s allowed to pursue that on behalf of her state and government in the UN, there are a lot of others who are carrying out surveillance on a lot of others who could complain as well. ”

He said Canada and its intelligence partners (Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States, known as the Five Eyes) may have been conducting broader surveillance activities and MME may have just been one aspect of that.

READ MORE: US-Brazil tensions flaring after report that NSA spied on Brazil’s president

But UBC political science professor Max Cameron said the allegations are serious and will most certainly damage Canada-Brazil relations and the Harper government will have to work hard to mend them, particularly when it comes to trade.

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“Brazil is, without any question… the most important player in the region,” he said. “We’ve now managed to seriously alienate them.”

“It gets a little bit difficult to negotiate trade agreements… when you’re in a cyber-war with a country,” Cameron told Global News.

Cameron said Canadian interests in mining and oil and gas throughout Latin America could be affected by the allegation. “How do we build closer relations with any part of the world if the countries that we’re working with suspect that we are spying on them?”

“We have no business spying on other countries to try to gain commercial advantage over them. Harper said… companies compete, but not countries,” he said.

Rudner points out that Canada and Brazil have competing industries and it wouldn’t be out of the line to speculate Brazil’s intelligence agency may be monitoring its interests in Canada.

Foreign direct investment by Brazil in Canada totalled $15.8 billion last year, while Canadian direct investment in Brazil was $9.8 billion.

Canadian exports to Brazil amounted to nearly $2.6 billion, while imports from Brazil were nearly $4 billion.

Rudner uses the example of a rivalry between Canadian and Brazilian aircraft manufacturers to demonstrate how economic espionage could benefit industry

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“Brazil produces a particular small, regional aircraft which competes with a Canadian product of a similar sort and it wouldn’t surprise me [if] Brazilians engage in economic intelligence to find out what Bombardier is planning to develop in those types of regional jets, what markets are they hoping to enter, in order for the Brazilian side [Embraer] to take appropriate competitive actions,” Rudner said.

Rudner reiterated that he was only using this scenario speculatively as an example.

But, as Cameron pointed out in another interview, Embraer and Bombardier have had a long battle over subsidies for the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer.

Rudner said there is a lesson to be learned in all of this.

“The message that is out there, to a country like Brazil, is that you require counter-intelligence capability. You have to protect your sensitive communications — not only against Canada, but against every other country engaged in energy investment, mining investment, financing mining investment, financing energy investment.”

*With files from The Canadian Press

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