Future Spies: The NSA Finances Summer Camp for Portuguese-Speaking Youth

Editor’s note: The following is an unofficial translation of “Futuros espiões: NSA financia acampamento de férias para jovens que falam português” from revolutionary Brazilian newspaper A Nova Democracia, originally published on Agência Pública.

American spy agency denounced by Snowden joins university to teach digital security to young people, facilitating the recruitment of spies with a focus on Brazil

By Andrew Fishman

The US government is training Portuguese-speaking 12 to 18-year-olds to take the first step on their way to becoming “cyber warriors” and hopefully one day work as spies for the National Security Agency (NSA), the the country’s leading digital spy agency. 

This year, the University of Washington, in the northwest of the country, will run two free summer camp programs where high school students can learn a core cyber security curriculum designed by the NSA. According to an investigation by Pública, for the first time, the course will be taught entirely in Portuguese. The first session takes place between July 12 and 30, and the second between August 2 and 6. The first course is online and the second is online and face-to-face. 120 students will be accepted. 

The person behind the program, professor Eduardo Viana da Silva, a Santa Catarina native with a gentle voice and friendly manner, spoke to the reporter and stated that the course offers “a window to some professional paths that students can explore in the future,” in the area of ​​cyber security, whether inside or outside the US government.

The summer camp is part of the NSA’s GenCyber ​​(Cyber ​​Generation) program, one of several Department of Defense funded initiatives to create and train potential recruits for spy agencies and the military.

This year alone, there will be 154 similar camps across the country. “To increase accessibility, GenCyber ​​vacation camp directors teach course content in the language participants speak. In years past, GenCyber ​​camps have already been held in Chinese and Spanish,” an NSA spokesman explained to the report.

The Defense Department, of which the NSA is a part, identified after the September 11, 2001 attacks that it lacked competent and well-trained cyber security professionals for its ever-expanding digital espionage operations. At a session of the US Congress, representatives from various government departments warned of the dangerous lack of personnel fluent in “strategically important languages” – a term that includes Portuguese. In the years that followed, the department moved to face this “national security crisis.”

The NSA’s core cyber security curriculum is part of the summer camp schedule

As a result, the US government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year on training, recruiting, and scholarships to train and encourage young students to pursue careers in government. These programs also serve as one of many ways to increase the influence of military and spy agencies on universities, with which they have a long-standing partnership. American spy agencies have sprung from important universities such as Yale and Harvard, with which they still have close ties, to major universities, such as the University of Southern California and the University of Kansas, where they have official courses such as “Community Intelligence Centers of Academic Excellence” through which they receive government funding.

For decades, much of the key infrastructure for warfare, communications and digital espionage – as well as the professionals to equip them – has been developed at elite US universities with military funding and partnership. The co-dependent relationship is so ingrained that top universities even hire powerful lobbyists from the defense industry to solicit more military funding.

GenCyber ​​is just a small star in a vast constellation of military investment in US academia. According to the Congressional Research Service, “nearly half of Department of Defense (DOD) basic research budget is spent at universities. DOD funding represents a substantial source of federal funds for R&D at institutions of higher education in some fields.” In 2018, the Department of Defense spent more than $8 billion on universities, with billions more in defense-related spending coming from other federal agencies. These billions have the effect of influencing priorities, faculty, spending and, as a result, students in American universities. 

“Clearly, GenCyber ​​​​not only used host institutions to transform the recruiting funnel, GenCyber ​​​​also helped transform these [educational] institutions,” says a report evaluating the program’s first five years, available in its site. “GenCyber ​​​​has been effective in promoting changes in attitude towards cybersecurity, both in terms of general interest and career,” the analysis concludes. 

“The GenCyber ​​guided me down a path that eventually led to an SFS scholarship,” says Ben, a student interviewed for the report, referring to the “Scholarship for Service,” a program in which the US government pays for college education in exchange for government work in cyber security. Ben was a student of the program in 2015. “After GenCyber, I decided to participate in Cyber ​​​​Patriot,” a cyber security competition for middle and high school students created by the US Air Force funded by the defense company Northrop Grumman, with cash prize for the winners.“ I founded the team at my high school. When I was in college studying cyber security, I interned at the FBI and I’m working with the DOD (Department of Defense) as a civilian now in cyber security,” Ben said. It’s a GenCyber ​​success story.

US President Joe Biden in April asked Congress to approve $753 billion in national security spending for 2022. The amount is equivalent to more than 90 percent of Brazil’s total federal budget . The US is by far the world’s highest defense spender. 

The US has a long history of secret espionage in Brazil. Today the NSA has become one of the main agencies leading this espionage. The NSA is the largest intelligence agency focused on digital espionage in the world. The NSA’s total workforce is rated but is estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000 with tens of thousands of additional contractors. 

In 2013, third-party analyst Edward Snowden leaked thousands of internal NSA documents, showing how the agency spied on citizens around the world, including Americans. Snowden still lives in exile in Russia. 

Revelations in Snowden’s file showed that the NSA and its Canadian allies had been spying on the Ministry of Mines and Energy and Petrobras, causing a political crisis between the governments of Dilma Rousseff and Barack Obama. Subsequent WikiLeaks revelations, published by Pública, showed that the NSA was also spying on President Rousseff and her top advisers (just as they were, and likely are, doing with many world leaders). The fruits of this espionage are regularly included in the president’s daily intelligence reports and are used by US officials for a variety of purposes, including trade treaty negotiations.

GenCyber ​​​​trains children to become “cyber warriors”

The University of Washington, which also offers summer camps in English, is one of dozens of universities that ran GenCyber’s summer camps this year in 44 of the 50 US states and Washington, the federal capital, as well as Puerto Rico, according to the program’s website. 

The summer camp is also taught at the University of Washington

From 2015 to 2019, 15,545 students participated in 565 GenCyber ​​summer camps, in addition to 3,711 teachers, who attended the educator training program. The report that looks at the first five years estimates that nearly 19% of alumni who graduated from high school pursued cyber security as a career; several alumni have gone to work for the military, intelligence agencies or private defense companies like Northrop Grumman. Many of the universities refer to these camps as “warrior academies” designed to train future “cyber warriors.” “The Academy of Cyber ​​Warriors trains the next generation for employment in virtual combat,” says an article on the University of North Georgia website about the 2017 course . 

Students learn cybersecurity fundamentals and, at least in some camps, simple ways to hack computers. In some programs, students are paired with college-age mentors enrolled in military officer training. 

Matt, another former student interviewed for the report, said he participated in a “very fun” hacking exercise: “We stole the administrator’s credentials using DDoS [massive hit attack against a server]. We didn’t think it was something within the limits of what we could actually do, but we did it,” said Matt, who majored in computer science and cybersecurity. “We were able to do this on a private network, so it wasn’t illegal,” he explains.

To participate in the program, university faculty must submit proposals to the NSA, which offers between $50,000 and $175,000 in funding for each three-week vacation camp. Many universities hold several each summer. 

In addition to the NSA, the Portuguese-language summer camp at the University of Washington also receives funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a US government agency, and additional internal support from the Department of Portuguese and Spanish Language at the University of Washington. Center for Global Studies, the Language Learning Center and the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity, an NSA-certified “academic center of excellence.” The NSF provided the university with more than $110 million in funding during the last fiscal year, funding more than 189 scholarships in various fields of study.

Course description on website: “The UW Portuguese Cybersecurity Program is an opportunity for high school students in the United States to become familiar with the principles of Cybersecurity”

Barbara Endicott-Popovsky, director of the University of Washington’s School of Cyber Security, told Cyber Security Guide that, as part of her school’s NSA certification, she sits on “various national committees” and works to advance the NSA’s interests at other universities: “I’ve been assigned by the NSA to oversee seven states, which allows me to provide introductory mentorships to universities and colleges that want to develop cybersecurity programs in line with national direction.” The school also partners with companies that have huge contracts with US intelligence agencies, such as Booz Allen (where former NSA contractor Edward Snowden worked), Boeing, IBM and Microsoft, among others. The university is the 43rd most militarized in the country, according to an investigation published in 2015 by Vice.

The Department of Defense “faces substantial challenges in meeting the needs of the cyberwarrior’s highly skilled workforce,” notes a 2015 study by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit think tank serving the US military-industrial complex. “Training individuals from a skill level of zero is expensive and often inefficient, so building a strong candidate stream can be beneficial,” concludes the study, which suggests that it is more cost-effective to recruit native speakers than to train new hires in cyber warfare and language resources, as many of them do not remain in government service for many years.

“It’s not a secret government plan. That’s not it,” says teacher

Eduardo Viana da Silva, a Portuguese professor at the University of Washington and leader of the GenCyber ​​​​in Portuguese program told Pública in an interview that although funding and curriculum guidelines come from the NSA and NSF, the courses are designed and taught by him and other Portuguese teachers interested in finding new ways to engage young people. 

“Foreign languages ​​is one of those fields where you’re always struggling to get students,” he said. “Incorporating something like cyber security helps, from a practical standpoint, to attract students.”

According to Viana da Silva, “a large part of the program” is “to provide a window for some professional paths that students can explore in the future” in the area of ​​cyber security – inside and outside the government. “There are tens of thousands of jobs, and they just don’t have qualified people” with sufficient language skills. “Therefore, we think we are filling a gap in some ways, especially in Portuguese”, says the professor.

“It’s not a secret government plan. That’s not it,” he says. “We are not teaching how to break codes. Because we don’t know. I’m a language teacher, I don’t know how to break codes.”

When approached, the NSA did not respond to all of Pública’s questions, but said, “The GenCyber ​​program aims to address the country’s shortage of skilled cyber security professionals. By sparking an early interest in cyber security among students [in middle and high school], the GenCyber ​​program provides an opportunity for students across the country to become the next generation of cyber professionals.” 

To increase accessibility, the courses were also given to “students with autism and students with visual impairments and the deaf,” according to the spokesperson.

Portuguese is “fundamental to US national security”

The University of Washington had already received NSA funding in 2017 to run Portuguese summer vacation camps for teenagers as part of another initiative called “Startalk” designed to increase critical language skills among future military personnel and the workforce of intelligence. The course page shows a video with young Brazilians and other national references such as the flag and the name of Santos Dumont.

In a video published on the website’s registration page, the future candidate is introduced to the course concept

Portuguese is one of 65 “favorite languages” considered “essential to US national security” by the Department of Defense.

An excerpt of the video shows a capoeira class that is part of the course’s workshops

An academic study from 2018 states that “in the United States, Portuguese has been living its golden years since the last decade”. The growth is a direct result of the classification of Portuguese as a “critical language” by the Department of Defense. The authors argue that this designation is a “political subject in a political context.”

They write, citing previous scholarships, that the “ Portuguese language teaching boom is directly related to the countries of Africa, Macau, and Brazil as these economies and their biodiesel resources and commodities reconfigure currencies and provide students with the opportunity to become locate as quasi-native professional speakers.”


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