This article is more about an interesting debate which recently took place in Toronto, Canada than it is about Edward Snowden. But it is, after all, Snowden who makes headlines. And indeed he appeared at the debate live, via video link, from Russia where he has been living for almost a year since his incendiary leaks. The topic up for debate was whether or not state surveillance is a legitimate defense of our freedoms. Prior to the debate Snowden opined that surveillance ’ is no longer based on the traditional practice of targeted taps based on some individual suspicion of wrongdoing. It (now) covers phone calls, emails, texts, search history, what you buy, who your friends are, where you go, who you love.” It was against the backdrop of these remarks that the debate proceeded for the next 90 minutes.
In favor of the motion, that is to say, arguing that state surveillance is necessary in these dangerous times were former NSA director, General Michael Hayden. He was joined on the ’pro’ side by the esteemed civil liberties lawyer and Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz. That such a staunch civil liberties advocate argued in favor of the motion is in itself revealing and testament to the divisive and weighty nature of the question. Hayden and Dershowitz were opposed by Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who first leaked Snowden’s documents and for which the Guardian was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. He was joined on the ’con’ side of the motion by tech entrepreneur and social media co-founder, Alexis Ohanian. Ohanian gained notoriety for his part in the creation of the social media website, Reddit.
Prior to the debate the audience was 33% in favor of the motion, 46% opposed with 21% undecided and supposedly open to persuasion. Over the course of the hour and a half the audience tussled with the question of whether or not democracies are justified in employing massive state surveillance technology at home and abroad to fight unconventional and complex threats. The flipside of this, of course, is the notion that such surveillance is a threat to our basic freedom.
(Courtesy of www.munkdebates.com/debates/state-surveillance)
On the pro side, Hayden argued that surveillance was not some sort of dark plot but merely a response to changing technologies and changing threats. Furthermore, he maintained that valuable communications patterns could emerge from the volumes of data which made metadata mining permissible. He likened the need to comb mounds of data for terrorist signals to the monitoring of Cold War communications of Russian ICBM forces. In other words, a necessity. Alan Dershowitz favored a balanced approach. Among other things, Dershowitz added that those who oppose any surveillance are as dangerous as those who would permit all surveillance.
In taking the opposing view, that massive government surveillance is not a defense of our freedoms, Glenn Greenwald pointed out that the NSA’s motto of ’collect all’ is not appropriate. He went on to say that a surveillance state is ’menacing to basic political liberties.” And that, ’Surveillance equals power.” The more information you have on someone the easier it is to manipulate them. Ever the entrepreneur, Ohanian opined that aggressive over surveillance would be counterproductive in the long run to the economy. He felt that money would flow out of countries where there were surveillance abuses. Moreover, new technologies would sprout to counter abusive government regimes. He didn’t mention the proliferation of VPNs, but would have done well to. Ohanian lamented that the US ’dropped the ball’ with its antagonistic practices and lost its standing as a beacon of freedom and privacy.
Invariably, the memory of September 11, 2001 was invoked. Hayden argued on the pro side that if there had been greater surveillance then intelligence analysts would have noticed the abnormal number of phone calls from the Middle East to San Diego. Hence, the terrorists living here illegally would have been caught. On the con side, Greenwald pointed out that it was because of the sheer mountain of data that authorities failed to prevent the attacks. They simply, according to him, were taking in too much data to accurately sort through it all.
In the end the arguments of Greenwald and Ohanian- in opposition to the motion- won out. After the debate the votes were tallied again. The audience voted 59% against the motion that surveillance defends freedom. Where do you stand? How would you have voted on the proposition? Going forward the challenge will be to strike a balance between the defense of freedom and security and the defense of privacy. It is obviously a delicate balancing act and a contentious issue. For all our sakes, one can only hope that government gets it right.