Whew, Theft of Classified Data in Brazil Was Just an Inside Job!

Laptop computer Petrobras publicly announced two weeks ago (February 14) that it got burglarized. Brazil’s state-controlled giant energy company was prompted to fess up after Terra Magazine (part of a major news portal) published a scoop, divulging inconclusive details of an ongoing classified investigation led by the Federal Police “only few Brazilians knew about so far.”

The article hinted about a presumable case of industrial espionage regarding important data, which was contained in two notebooks and a hard-drive missing from a container that left the Campos basin for the city of Macaé, located almost a hundred miles away from the port of Rio the Janeiro, where it previously had made a stop.


The relevance of the data stored in the equipment was asserted by the author who argued that the responsible for its transportation was Halliburton, described as one of the world’s largest oilfield services provider, previously directed by Dick Cheney prior to his career as “Bush Junior’s vice-president.”


In a doomed attempt to keep investigations covert, Petrobras issued an evasive note to ‘clarify’ that the equipment was indeed stolen and did leak important data, but no worries! They had backup. It also claimed that the theft took place “within the installations of the corporation that provides specialized services for Petrobras” and said it happened while that very specialized corporation was guarding the material, not Petrobras.


The cloaking of such a lucrative subject is certain to trigger media’s scrutiny and speculation. And so, national attention was steered towards the fog of this mysterious investigation throughout the last couple of weeks.


Further news updates rectified that the containers had originally left the Santos basin, location of the recently found Tupi oil field (estimated to contain at least 5 to 8 billion barrels of oil equivalent) and the Jupiter gas field (a reserve of natural gas about the same size of Tupi’s).


Petrobras has boasted that future exploration of these two fields should grant the country energy independence and turn it into a major international exporter.


Pressing emphasis on the matter sparked a heated debate of diverting statements, conjectures and opinions, mostly converging to the impelling hypothesis of industrial espionage. Though Federal Police still have not ruled out the possibility of a common crime, it announced that the case seemed almost certain industrial espionage.


A day after matters went public, Info magazine interviewed Fernando Siqueira, director of Petrobras’ Association of Engineers (Apete), which acknowledged that the company has been a constant target for data espionage since the discovery of the Tupi oil field, leaking that two engineers and a geologist had their houses invaded recently, occasion in which only their notebooks were taken.


Even Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, addressed the subject as a “threat to national security”, demanding clear and conclusive disclosure from authorities.


But while many security experts, ministers and columnists warned about the security flaws of Petrobras, a major oil company in a world of questionable ethics and procedures, Federal Police specialist Isaac Morais continued the investigations and publicly concluded that not only it was a case of petty thief, but a “sloppy job” to boot.


Further reports exposed an even bigger conundrum, disclosing that police investigations began only a week after the crime was reported on February 1st, allegedly due to the Carnaval celebrations. When the probe started the crime scene had already been defiled. It was also disclosed that no depositions had been taken prior to the publishing of the first exposé.


But since the stolen data had obviously been backed up, the major economic concern was the impact of the incident on the bidding of exploration licenses on the Santos basin. The first auction took place shortly after the Tupi oil field was found and prior to the confirmation of the Jupiter gas field.


After the news broke and it was confirmed that the stolen equipment was being used to probe the Santos basin, some sites and newspapers published that government sources would determine the cancellation of public auctions and revoke previously conceded licenses.


After eleven days of intensive and (mostly) contradictory media coverage, the president of Petrobras, José Sérgio Gabrielli, finally turned public more conclusive information about the import data that was stolen.


In an interview at the Petrobras’ main office in Buenos Aires, capital of an Argentina that is going through a major energy crisis and asks for impossible help, Gabrielli finally disclosed that the stolen material actually contained encrypted probing data from the also enormous Jupiter gas field, consisting of four notebooks and two hard-drives.


When asked about the security procedures of data transmission, Gabrielli claimed that probing logs are routinely sent through satellite connections or transferred to external hard-drives in cases that terabytes are transferred.


In the case of this particular episode, the shipping of notebooks and desktop computers happened because the whole probe was being carried ashore, including the violated container which sat on top of it. He also clarified that bidding for explorations on the gas field will happen regardless of the incident, which he labeled as unrelated to the negotiations.


Gabrielli turned out to be luckily right. The Federal Police launched an operation that resulted in the detention of four suspects, all of them security guards from the terminal of containers at Poliporto, in Rio de Janeiro.


The superintendent of Rio’s Federal Police, Valdinho Jacinto Caetano, refuted the possibility of industrial espionage, saying that the thieves were oblivious to the content of the equipment and they have also been stealing electronics from the containers since September of 2007.


Turns out it was petty thief in the end and Isaac Moraes, the only dissonant voice in the conspiracy choir, was right from the beginning.


The episode serves at least as a reminder for Petrobras to keep closer attention to the security procedures and also gave the media a good two weeks of coverage and a good example of why the press is so important in a democracy.


Daniel M. Cavalcante is a Brazilian journalism student.

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