Ticos woke up Tuesday morning to news that the “Switzerland of the Americas” has been the target of electronic surveillance by the United States National Security Agency.
Costa Rican leaders responded to allegations later in the afternoon from the Brazilian newspaper O Globo that the NSA has been spying on the Central American country’s Internet and telephone communications as part of the controversial Prism surveillance program.
The report this morning claimed that the NSA has been spying on several Latin American countries between 2008 and the first third of 2013, based on documents obtained from the surveillance agency.
President Laura Chinchilla said that she was “uncomfortable” with the idea of the NSA spying on communications from Costa Rica.
“It trumps the right of other countries, like Costa Rica, to protect and guarantee their citizens’ right to privacy,” Chinchilla told reporters during a press conference, referencing to the agency’s collection of “metadata.”
U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden told the British newspaper the Guardian in early June that the NSA has been collecting massive amounts of information about Internet and telephone communications as part of a program codenamed “Prism.”
Prism supposedly allowed the NSA access to emails, telephone calls, and online conversations via Facebook, Google and Microsoft, among others.
The O Globo article noted that another program known as “Boundless Informant” was also used to collect metadata in Latin America.
Eric Turner, press officer for the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, said that it is not policy to comment on individual allegations of spying, adding that the U.S. State Department responds to other countries’ concerns through diplomatic channels. The embassy noted that the U.S. collects the same kinds of foreign intelligence as other countries.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has defended the practice, stressing that the NSA was not listening to private phone calls or reading emails as part of the secret program. Instead, the U.S. government said that it was only collecting technical information about the communications, such as the length of a telephone call and the location where an email originated.
Costa Rican ministers had little say on what kind of response the administration would take regarding the allegations.
Presidency Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides said that it was “impossible” to take any concrete steps based on the information available, noting that the O Globo article lacked any specifics about the surveillance agency’s activity in Costa Rica.
“We take it very seriously but our response needs to be proportionate,” he added.
O Globo’s article highlighted Brazil, Mexico and Colombia as the spy agency’s top targets in the region. The newspaper added that much of the information collected related to energy and economic issues, along with security details regarding drug trafficking and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.
The article named Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Paraguay, Chile, Peru and El Salvador as countries that were under regular but less intensive surveillance.
News of the NSA’s Latin American spying operation comes a week after Bolivian President Evo Morales’ airplane was detained in Austria under the suspicion that whistleblower Snowden was on board. The Andean leader waited 13 hours before receiving permission from France, Italy, Portugal and Spain to travel through their airspace on his way back to Bolivia.
Snowden reportedly accepted an asylum offer from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Tuesday afternoon.
AFP contributed to this article.
This story was updated at 5:35 p.m. on Wednesday, July 10 to add reaction from the U.S. Embassy.