This October, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo revealed that during the Bolsonaro administration, the country’s intelligence service, Abin (Agência Brasileira de Inteligência), had been illegally spying on Brazilian citizens. As more information has risen to the surface, it has become clear that Abin has spied on an estimated 33 million people’s cell phones and movement data, including journalists, politicians, and other opponents of the regime. In the face of such a scandal, many are wondering what the future of free speech in Brazil will look like.

As reported by outlets such as O Globo or The Intercept Brasil, this scandal has potentially affected up to 15% of the total population of the country. Using software called First Mile, Abin was able to monitor cell phones and movements of up to 10,000 individuals at once. Furthermore, this data was stored on servers located in foreign countries which were potentially available to foreign governments. While this scandal is certainly shocking, it is not entirely surprising for the Bolsonaro regime.

Under Bolsonaro, the Brazilian administration decried its critics, often using the Trumpian label of fake news. The revelation of Abin’s role in this now points to broader governmental action against critics and opponents, including actors from the Brazilian military. Former Colonel Hélcio Bruno has since been implicated in the facilitation of the sale of spy technology to the Brazilian government, including the contract which gave the government access to First Mile. Bruno also owns a consultancy agency, which cooperates with the military as well as the private sector. 

Domestic espionage here is not only limited to the national government but local administrations as well. In 2020, the Bolsonaro administration distributed software to state police departments which allowed them to monitor cell phone activity as part of Project Excel, a broader anti-crime campaign. The contracts behind Project Excel are estimated to have cost over 100 million Reals, equivalent to 18.9 million Euros. Normally, the government would still be able to access this technology, but only with prior judicial approval, which was not applied in this instance. The staggering size of these deals and the scandal as a whole also point to a lack of governmental oversight or clarity.

Theoretically, the purchasing and use of spy technology is overseen by the Joint Commission for the Control of Intelligence Activities (CCAI), composed of members of the Brazilian parliament. However, during the Bolsonaro years, this body has fallen by the wayside. In the administration’s four years, CCAI had only met ten times. Even today, the commission has not met, yet with the ongoing investigations, it is slated to meet with the former head of Abin later this year. Additionally, in 2021 General Augusto Heleno signed an amendment to the country’s Criminal Investigation Act which would allow the government to purchase intelligence technology and equipment away from accountability and surveillance mechanisms, such as eliminating bidding requirements.

While nevertheless shocking, this scandal is not Brazil’s first foray into domestic espionage. In 2000, the head of Abin was dismissed over revelations that the agency had spied on a governor who was part of the opposition party. Even earlier, during the military dictatorship of the 1960s, the country’s various governmental agencies and intelligence services had spied on its own citizens. During this time, an estimated 3,000 Brazilians disappeared due to suspected regime killings or kidnappings. However, currently the actions of Abin have been the subject of scrutiny and investigation. The Federal Police have already undertaken an investigation of the agency, leading to a large inter-agency rivalry and conflict. Nevertheless, the current administration under President Lula da Silva has yet to give an official response to the ongoing scandal. Yet, this issue is a microcosm of a broader struggle over free speech in the country.

Much like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro and his supporters relied on a cultural strategy of decrying criticism and opponents as fake news, as well as using social and traditional media to relay their far-right messaging. In the face of a seemingly growing tide of far-right sentiment, the Lula administration has struggled to find a distinction between censorship for the public good and the erasure of free speech. 

Earlier this year, five people were indicted without trial for suspected participation in the failed putsch on the Brazilian Parliament earlier this year. The government cited a need to suppress anti-democratic movements and disinformation as the reasoning behind its decision. Heading this crusade against misinformation and anti-democracy is Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes. 

Since last year, the government has granted Moraes further powers to police lies and public disinformation, a move that critics decry as undermining democracy. Among the measures taken by Moraes and his colleagues, the government has raided neo-Nazi groups across ten of its 26 states, as well as launching multiple criminal investigations into Jair Bolsonaro. The bold actions of Moraes have been the subject of praise from figures on Brazil’s left and some members of the media but have also drawn criticism from legal experts who worry that the Supreme Court will embark on an authoritarian streak of its own in the name of protecting democracy. 

A potential reason for the strong measures taken against Bolsonaro and his supporters is the aftermath of the 2020 United States elections. Much like his idol Donald Trump, Bolsonaro encouraged claims of election interference and fraud amongst his supporters in the build-up and aftermath of the 2022 Brazilian Presidential Election, culminating in an attempted invasion of the Brazilian capitol buildings in Brasília. Seeing the potential for further chaos, as in the United States, the Brazilian government under Lula da Silva has been quick to combat any claims of fraud and misinformation online. Unlike the United States, the Brazilian Supreme Court handles many more cases per year, with over 500,000 rulings given in the past five years. Such a potent institution was a key tool in the fight against online misinformation and anti-democratic thought. However, their actions, as with the actions of Abin, still carry potentially worrying implications for the future of free speech as a whole in the country.

Written by Reed McIntire, Edited by Lekshmi Dev

Photo Credit: Unsplash