NSA may spy on Brazil’s Petrobras, but intelligence chief claims it doesn’t steal secrets

Economic or industrial espionage has long been one of the most important strands of intelligence activity – regardless of the sponsor nation — so it is unsurprising that many quietly suspect the U.S. National Security Agency of stealing corporate secrets from other countries. I’ve heard it plenty of times here in Germany, though in the absence of proof it’s not usually something people want to talk about too loudly.

But now the economic espionage angle has surfaced for real in the long-running NSA scandal: working with leaker Edward Snowden ally Glenn Greenwald, Brazil’s O Globo has published new training slides that suggest the NSA has targeted the private networks of Google(s goog), the French foreign ministry, SWIFT (the organization that enables secure international communications between financial institutions) and Petrobras(s pbr).

SWIFT would be an obvious target for those investigating terrorist money-laundering. However Petrobras is an oil firm – not the sort of outfit you’d expect to be targeted in an anti-terrorism drive.

But that’s OK, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said. Responding to the O Globo piece, he said in a statement:

“It is not a secret that the Intelligence Community collects information about economic and financial matters, and terrorist financing. We collect this information for many important reasons: for one, it could provide the United States and our allies early warning of international financial crises which could negatively impact the global economy. It also could provide insight into other countries’ economic policy or behavior which could affect global markets…

“What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — US companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line.”

It is certainly the case that Petrobras is a big deal. Majority-owned by the Brazilian government, the company is one of the largest in the world. Petrobras’s thoughts are plainly of interest to those observing the economic tides – but then again, there are plenty of U.S. firms that would sell their firstborn for insights into the company’s oil reserve findings.

At this point, we know nothing about the true reasoning behind the NSA spying on Petrobras, but that won’t stop people guessing — don’t forget that Brazil (Greenwald’s home) is already outraged at the NSA’s spying on President Dilma Roussef.

The NSA private networks operation is apparently known as “Royal Net”. Meanwhile, O Globo’s scoop also includes references to two British programs called “Flying Pig” and “Hush Puppy”, which apparently involve the bypassing of TLS/SSL encryption — this ties into last week’s revelations about the weakening or cracking of basic web encryption methods.