The ongoing debate over whether Americans should value privacy or security stretched into Toronto, Canada Friday night when four of the most influential voices on the matter sat down to discuss the leaked NSA surveillance programs and their fallout.
Former National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency chief Michael Hayden joined with Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to argue that the ongoing surveillance programs first revealed in June last year by Edward Snowden are necessary to prevent terrorism.
Arguing that national security is merely an excuse for an “insatiable appetite for data” was Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Glenn Greenwald - one of the few journalists working with Snowden who now works at The Intercept, a magazine on FirstLook.org.
Organized by Munk Debates, which brings together high-profile pundits on a number of issues, the debate started at 7:00 p.m. EST and streamed live on FirstLook.org. Users participated in the debate both in the hall and online by tweeting in remotely with the hashtag #MunkDebate.
A poll of the Toronto audience before the beginning of the debate found that 32 percent agreed that “state surveillance is a legitimate defense of our freedoms." Forty-seven percent disagreed, and 21 percent were undecided.
— Micah Lee (@micahflee) May 2, 2014
“There is virtually nothing that is immune from the eyes, ears, and even noses of the new generation of big brothers,” Dershowitz said in his opening statement. “Those who oppose all surveillance are as dangerous as those who uncritically support all surveillance. I believe it’s possible to strike a balance in a manner that protects our freedoms, and that is where our efforts should be directed.”
Greenwald, perhaps the most recognizable face on the stage because of his frequent cable TV appearances, argued that limited, targeted surveillance - which Hayden and Derhowitz promoted - makes perfect sense. The journalist compared the actual surveillance state, in which the NSA collects nearly two billion individual communications every day, to a notion that far exceeded even the predictions of 1950s science-fiction authors.
“What state surveillance actually is is best understood by the NSA’s own documents and own words, which I think as you know I happen to have a lot of,” Greenwald said. “That phrase that they use over and over again to describe the state of surveillance they’ve constructed is called Collect It All.”
— Jesselyn Radack (@JesselynRadack) May 2, 2014
Greenwald went on to spar with Hayden and Dershowitz over whether the current method of metadata collection would have prevented the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Hayden argued that intelligence analysts would have noticed the number of calls from San Diego to the Middle East and caught the terrorists who were living inside the US illegally. The problem, he said, was that when the NSA prevented the attack, they would still have to defend the surveillance program because as far as the public would be concerned, nothing went wrong.
But Greenwald stated that a number of experts have come forward to say that such a claim is not only false, but also offensive to the public. Lawrence Wright, the winner of a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for his Al-Qaeda coverage, wrote in the New Yorker earlier this year that one of the primary reasons US authorities failed to stop 9/11 is because they were taking in too much information to accurately sort through.
The sheer data volume that such a method of surveillance has created is now threatening to ruin the very internet that so many people now rely upon.
“The gift and the curse of all that data, aside from the civil liberty violations, is that yeah there may be some signal but there’s a lot of noise,” Ohanian said. “It’s a very hard software problem to solve…through the efforts of this mass surveillance we’ve also undermined so much of the technology that makes the internet work, that keeps us safe. It threatens the technology of how the internet works, and works well.”
— Jesselyn Radack (@JesselynRadack) May 3, 2014
— Micah Lee (@micahflee) May 2, 2014
— The Munk Debates (@munkdebate) May 3, 2014