It was not exactly spying on presidents, but revelations in Folha de S. Paulo, a Brazilian newspaper, that Brasília spied on the diplomats of some would-be close friends are a bit embarrassing. Of course everyone does it and of course, the Russians, Iranians and Iraqis – the alleged victims of Brazilian spying in the Folha report – were probably doing it to Brazil at the time when the incidents occurred back in 2003 and 2004.

But the problem here is that Brazil has been taking pains to appear shocked and violated by accusations this year that the US was spying not only on Petrobras and other state-owned companies but on President Dilma Rousseff and her staff.

Brazil has been using the accusations, which stem from material released by Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor, to justify expensive new laws that will force internet data to be kept onshore.

There has even been a hint of windfall profits for domestic manufacturers of telecom and computer hardware after a suggestion that Brazil might try to produce all equipment related to communications here.

The allegations in Folha will not change this but they do reveal a few embarrassing skeletons in Brazil’s own cupboard and may serve as a warning to the government to avoid sitting too high on its high horse. Folha wrote:

The main arm of espionage of the Brazilian government monitored diplomats from three countries in their embassies and residences, according to a report produced by Abin (the Brazilian Intelligence Agency) and obtained by Folha.

The document offered details about 10 secret operations conducted between 2003 and 2004 and that showed that even countries that Brazil looked to befriend in recent years, such as Russia and Iran, became targets of Abin.

The “operations” appear to be good old-fashioned Cold War-style things, such as following someone and darting behind a pillar whenever he glances behind his back, rather than hacking a nation’s email accounts en masse. But still, they show that Brazil is no flunkey when it comes to protecting its national interests.

“The operations cited… were in conformity with Brazilian legislation to protect the national interest,” said a note from the institutional security cabinet (GSI) of the president’s office.

“Respecting constitutional norms regarding freedom of the press, the GSI reaffirms that the leak of reports classified as secret constitutes a crime and those responsible will be prosecuted.”

So it appears that in this respect – punishing whistle blowers – Brazil is no different from the US. For any Brazilian Snowdens out there, get ready for exile. Where might be a good place to go? Beyondbrics would suggest, hmmm – how about Russia?

Related reading:
Edward Snowden has done us all a favour – even Barack Obama, FT
Spying: Too much information, FT
Rousseff dashes White House hope of stronger ties with Brazil, FT

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