Don’t Compare The Brazilian Spying Case To The NSA’s Mass Surveillance Efforts

Earlier today a Brazilian newspaper broke the story that ABIN, the top intelligence agency in that country, has employed low-tech spying techniques on foreign diplomats.

This is sticky for the country as it has been intensely critical of the NSA and its practices of mass surveillance the world around. If the NSA is spying, and ABIN is spying, do we come to a wash, all walking away simply saying that everyone spies, so calm down?

Not in the least.

Let’s review a few facts. Governments spy. They even joke about how they all do it. This is the normal state of affairs, as it has always been the state of affairs.

Here’s the New York Times discussing Brazil’s efforts to spy on people, as originally reported by Folha de São Paulo:

The statement followed a report in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo describing how the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, commonly known as Abin, had followed some diplomats from Russia and Iran on foot and by car, photographing their movements, while also monitoring a commercial property leased by the United States Embassy in Brasília, the capital.

So, we’re talking about activities so basic that they aren’t uncommon among ex-partners who are a bit hung up on the end of a relationship. And if the United States didn’t expect that its embassies on foreign soil might be target for local surveillance, I’ll shave my head.

Now for context, here’s a partial roll of the NSA’s activities that have been recently revealed:

That’s just a taste and doesn’t include the domestic efforts of the agency and even most of its foreign work.

If governments are going to spy, why am I unhappy with the NSA and its efforts? Because there is a difference between walking behind a visiting diplomat to see where she goes than ending digital privacy for all global citizens. If you can’t feel the difference between the two, I doubt that we are going to be able to come to comity on this issue.

I find it frustrating that people are comparing two things of utter disparate scale as if they are commensurate. They are not.

And no, I would not be either offended or surprised if the United States government dispatches gumshoe hacks to walk 15 feet behind certain diplomats. Sure. Go for it. But the fact that governments do that has nothing to do with the NSA’s offenses to privacy, and therefore democracy. Don’t trivialize the destruction of the fundamental core tenet of democracy.

Top Image Credit: Mike Vondran