Phone tapping: What Rousseff didn't learn from Snowden

Friday, April 1, 2016

On March 16, Brazilian federal judge Sergio Moro released tapped phone conversations between President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The controversial tapes surfaced one day after Rousseff confirmed Lula would be her chief of staff and, according to government opponents, indicate that she appointed the former president largely to give him some extra legal protection from a corruption investigation.

Start your 15 day free trial now!


Already a subscriber? Please, login

The tapes, which also contain Lula's conversations with several other politicians and friends and relatives, set Brazil on fire. A few days after record-breaking nationwide protests, thousands flocked back to the streets calling for Rousseff's ousting and Lula's arrest.

The federal government fiercely condemned the disclosure, decrying it as illegal and unconstitutional. Recorded conversations of the president should be submitted for supreme court appraisal, officials said. Rousseff also denied she was acting to shield Lula.

Legal and constitutional issues apart, the case shows Rousseff was, to say the least, sloppy in her communications.

As far as is known, Rousseff was not - and is not - being tapped, but she called a tapped phone of one of Lula's aides.

To avoid eavesdropping, Rousseff could have used encrypted communication, especially as it was known publicly that her predecessor - including people linked to him - were being scrutinized by investigators.


Even Edward Snowden, who broke the news of the US phone espionage that targeted, among others, Rousseff, criticized her recklessness. In his recently launched Twitter profile, the former NSA contractor retweeted a story from 2013 about the agency supposedly listening in to the Brazilian and Mexican presidents, adding ironically:

"'Going dark' is a fairy tale: 3 years after @dilmabr wiretap headlines, she's still making unencrypted calls."

After the NSA case broke, the Brazilian government vowed to improve and expand its Expresso open source platform, developed by federal data processing service Serpro.

Rousseff also issued a decree stipulating that government agencies should gradually adopt email and IT services provided exclusively by the federal administration in order to ensure privacy and inviolability of official messages.

But the recent events show the Brazilian president was careless with her phone communications - even when there was homegrown technology to secure them.


Brazilian security firm Sikur, part of the Ciberbras technology group, created a "secure, espionage-free communication" platform four years ago based on a "fully encrypted" environment without a backdoor.

Sikur later embedded the platform into a prototype called  GranitePhone, considered Latin America's first smartphone built from scratch for security, and unveiled at the 2015 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

"I usually say Edward Snowden was our best pre-salesman," joked Sikur's CEO Cristiano Iop in an interview with BNamericas in 2014.

It looks like no one showed it to Rousseff.


Another row involving the tapes concerns the legitimacy of the most controversial of the Lula-Dilma conversations. This is because judge Moro's order allowing the wiretap expired minutes before the conversation took place. And yet Moro still opted to release its content, claiming "public interest."

The tapped phone used by Lula was a Claro Brasil one. Claro took nearly 11 hours to comply with the judge's order and stop the signal that directed conversations from that phone to the federal police's Guardian program.

Claro was notified by Moro at 12:46pm on March 16, but stopped tapping procedures at 11:33pm. The most controversial Lula-Dilma conversation happened at around 1pm.

Questioned by BNamericas, Claro Brasil said it would not comment on the case.