The O Globo newspaper reported over the weekend that information released by NSA leaker Edward Snowden shows that the number of telephone and email messages logged by the U.S. National Security Agency in Brazil in January alone was not far behind the 2.3 billion reportedly collected in the United States.
Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, speaking from the colonial city of Paraty where he was attending Brazil's top literary festival, expressed "deep concern at the report that electronic and telephone communications of Brazilian citizens are being the object of espionage by organs of American intelligence.
"The Brazilian government has asked for clarifications" through the U.S. Embassy in Brazil and Brazil's embassy in Washington, he said.
Patriota also said Brazil will ask the U.N. for measures "to impede abuses and protect the privacy" of Internet users, laying down rules for governments "to guarantee cybernetic security that protects the rights of citizens and preserves the sovereignty of all countries."
The spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Brazil's capital, Dean Chaves, said diplomats there would not have any comment.
But the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement saying, "The U.S. government will respond through diplomatic channels to our partners and allies in the Americas ... While we are not going to comment publicly on specific alleged intelligence activities, as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations."
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff warned Sunday that Snowden's overall disclosures have undermined U.S. relationships with other countries and affected what he calls "the importance of trust." Gen. Martin Dempsey told CNN's "State of the Union" that the U.S. will "work our way back. But it has set us back temporarily."
Patriota's reaction in Brazil extended diplomatic turbulence the U.S. has faced from friends and foes around the world since Snowden began releasing details of the surveillance.
Germany's top security official suggested last month that Internet users could shun operations that use U.S.-based computer servers to avoid security worries. France's Interior Minister used a July 4 garden party at the U.S. Embassy in Paris to complain about alleged U.S. spying, saying "such practices, if proven, do not have their place between allies and partners."
Hong Kong officials last month declined a U.S. request to extradite the former NSA contract worker amid indications of displeasure over his revelation that the former British colony had been a target of American hacking.
The O Globo article said that "Brazil, with extensive digitalized public and private networks operated by large telecommunications and internet companies, appears to stand out on maps of the U.S. agency as a priority target for telephony and data traffic, alongside nations such as China, Russia and Pakistan."
The report did not describe the sort of data collected, but the U.S. programs appear to gather what is called metadata: logs of message times, addresses and other information rather than the content of the messages.
The report was co-authored by U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald, who originally broke the Snowden story in the Britain-based Guardian newspaper, where he writes a regularly blog.
In a Sunday posting, Greenwald wrote that "the NSA has, for years, systematically tapped into the Brazilian telecommunication network and indiscriminately intercepted, collected and stored the email and telephone records of millions of Brazilians."
He said Brazil was merely an example of a global practice.
"There are many more populations of non-adversarial countries which have been subjected to the same type of mass surveillance net by the NSA: indeed, the list of those which haven't been are shorter than those which have," he wrote.
The O Globo article said the NSA collected the data through an association between U.S. and Brazilian telecommunications companies. It said it could not verify which Brazilian companies were involved or if they were aware their links were being used to collect the data.
"It's most likely that any monitoring was done of undersea cables and satellites. For international transmissions and calls, the majority of the cables pass through the United States," Paulo Bernardo, Brazil's communications minister, told O Globo. "We're extremely concerned about this news, especially the possible involvement of Brazilian companies. If that actually happened, it would be a crime under Brazilian law."
Brazil was among several nations asked to provide political asylum by Snowden in recent days. The foreign ministry said last week that it did "not plan to respond" to the leaker's request, though spokesmen declined to say they explicitly denied his application. Other Latin American nations—Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua—have already said they will grant asylum. On Sunday, Cuban President Raul Castro said he supported those countries' apparent willingness to grant Snowden asylum, but he did not say whether Cuba itself would offer him refuge or safe passage.
While some Brazilians were upset by the revelations, others seemed to shrug.
"On the one hand, the size of the U.S. espionage program and the number of Brazilians who fell into it is ridiculous," said Rodolfo Andrade, a 29-year-old businessman in Sao Paulo. "On the other hand, it helps international security."
Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and John Rice in Mexico City contributed to this report.