Internet security and policy experts say the Brazilian government’s reaction to information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is understandable, but warn it could set the Internet on a course of Balkanization.
“The global backlash is only beginning and will get far more severe in coming months,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the Washington-based New America Foundation think tank. “This notion of national privacy sovereignty is going to be an increasingly salient issue around the globe.”
While Brazil isn’t proposing to bar its citizens from U.S.-based Web services, it wants their data to be stored locally as the nation assumes greater control over Brazilians’ Internet use to protect them from NSA snooping.
The danger of mandating that kind of geographic isolation, Meinrath said, is that it could render inoperable popular software applications and services and endanger the Internet’s open, interconnected structure.
This article in Time this week shows one of the most likely impacts from the Snowden leaks on U.S. spying. Justifiably, other countries are upset. Some will use this anger to do what they wanted to already, which is to bring some of their national data in-house. This will allow them to put an additional roadblock against the NSA (far from insurmountable) while allowing their own intelligence agencies to potentially mine that data.
While Time talks in fear of the Balkanization of the Internet, they ignore that this has already widely happened in the entertainment industry. The industry itself put up countless barriers from enjoying their goods in certain regions, and despite that people go around them. VPNs, proxies, and pirating allows people to access music and videos not “sold” in their country. Nothing indicates that this would change if new services went up elsewhere in the world to challenge titans from the USA.
The biggest threat, or opportunity, arising from this anger is true competition over security. Tools like email cannot be done securely, simply because of the information they leak in headers. You can encrypt the data within the email, but a dedicated adversary will still get what they want from it. If some usable replacements for this, that included whole-chain encryption, there could be a sizable uptick in usage from this. The same goes for basic network traffic, while options like Tor exist they can’t be trusted due to the limited number of exit nodes an adversary has to control in order to monitor the network. Unless vast numbers of users move to Tor, and move a lot of applications to hidden services, this option doesn’t seem to have a lot of future to it either. It does offer a framework for future technologies to be developed.
Realistically, the only way any of these turn detrimental to the future of the Internet is if new protocols or software are developed that intentionally block other regions. Even in that circumstance, however, as I said before there should be ways around those barriers. Even better, if those protocols are built with privacy and security as core philosophies, they could help provide something to replace those that are used now.