Analysis of the Munk Debates


The issue of state surveillance has been a hot topic in the past few years, and with the Munk Debate on “State Surveillance” more fuel has been added to the argument whether to support or ax the current surveillance regime. Since

Snowden, living in Russia with temporary asylum, last year leaked documents he collected while working for the NSA… The disclosures have sparked a debate over how much leeway to give the U.S. government in gathering information to protect Americans from terrorism, and have prompted numerous lawsuits. (Reuters, 2014)

Due to the debate there have been considerable differences in between individuals on whether what the government is doing is right or not. So therefore it is natural to focus on the Munk debates (munkdebates, 2014), where there are individuals arguing for pro-surveillance and con-surveillance.

Summary of Arguments

Professor Alan Dershowitz and General Michael Hayden argued for the continual support of the surveillance regime. Alan Dershowitz argues that in regards to surveillance if it was properly conducted, it would inherently protect our liberties from future infringements by the state as a reaction to another event such as 9/11 (munkdebates, 2014). Currently Professor Dershowitz claims that the surveillance technology is still a developing technology therefore to cancel it would be giving the enemy an advantage, because they do not face any constraints. However to proceed with the use of this developing technology, one must realize that it is a preventative measure, therefore there must always be an over-prediction, so the net that is cast does not miss any danger. While Dershowitz acknowledges that there are situations where civil liberties are violated, to proceed in the future with this new found method of preventative intelligence is with extreme caution and must be accountable and balanced on whether the bigger desire is to stop attacks or increase privacy.

While Professor Alan Dershowitz generally talked about the usefulness of surveillance and why there should continual support for state surveillance, General Michael Hayden took another approach. Rather than talking about surveillance generally, Hayden made reference actual programs that the NSA, claiming that some of the facts out there on NSA surveillance is blown way out of proportion and tried to anchor the crowd in reality (munkdebates, 2014). General Hayden claims that the NSA is not doing anything that it is not allowed to do, and that some of the claims presented by the other parties are on the possibilities of the NSA’s power but not on the actuality of what the NSA does. Hayden goes on to state that the arguments published against NSA on the Prison Program among many other programs, which allows them access to Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, are usually segmented and do not include the whole story. Furthermore in reality, NSA only collects .00004% of global internet traffic, which every other country does but they are the only ones singled out. In reaction to stopping 9/11 and the recent Boston Marathon Bombings, Hayden responded that it was due to the limitations of not being able to monitor Americans that they were unable to stop it with state surveillance, however NSA only uses that other major companies such as Google collects.

On the other side of the argument, is technology entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian, and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian focuses on the costs to economic and technological aspects associated with the continuation of the surveillance state (munkdebates, 2014). With technological industries losing up to $180 billion due to hesitation from consumers signing up because of fear of being tracked has caused significant losses to the economy. However the main argument that Ohanian forwards is the fact that the ability for NSA to set up surveillance of internet usage is through the use of a loophole or flaw. This loophole or flaw which Ohanian identified pollutes the network and threatens security. Therefore instead of exploiting the flaw, Ohanian claims that the NSA should spend efforts on increasing the security of the internet therefore other malicious individuals or groups are unable to use the same flaw to exploit the public. Moreover Ohanian states that the internet is a medium for people live and explore and that monitoring the internet disproportionately affects innocent people with no due process, therefore the question should not be whether they can but on whether they should establish a surveillance state.

Glenn Greenwald argues that the NSA has been lying to the public for a very long time, and that the officials are skilled liars. The state surveillance mantra is “collect it all, snip it all, know it all, process it all, and exploit it all” and that state surveillance actually entails indiscriminate suspicion less surveillance contrary to what General Hayden was saying (munkdebates, 2014). Stating that terrorism has less fatalities than some diseases across the world, Greenwald claims that term terrorism has been used as a pretext for many of the inhumane acts that the United States have committed. However there have been no documented cases where meta-analysis or the collection of bulk data has actually stopped terrorism. Furthermore Greenwald argues that the collection of bulk data is more pervasive to individuals than focusing the surveillance on certain aspects of their life. Therefore Greenwald is rejected the surveillance state because of what it is now, and not what it could potentially be, as well as he argues that whichever methods protected us from the Soviets during the Cold war should be sufficient to protect us from terrorists hiding in caves.


Both sides portray a very compelling argument and there should be merits awarded to both sides. However from my personal perspective, based off of what they have said, it is not sufficient enough to formulate a solid opinion yet. Rather I would argue that from Michael Hayden’s and Glenn Greenwald’s argument, that the evidence they both have is contrast to each other. Therefore until the evidence from both sides are up for public display then is one able to fully formulate an opinion on the subject rather than base it off the words of another. However I would agree with both Alan Dershowitz and Alexis Ohanian because they both offer quite practical arguments. It seems that Alan Dershowitz believes surveillance is inevitable, therefore stuff can be done to make a bad situation better, which translates to oversight and accountability. Which I would agree is a plausible action to take if the surveillance state is inevitable in this day and age. Furthermore Alexis Ohanian claims that by allowing the flaw to exist in the network and using it as a tool for surveillance jeopardizes the security of everyone. I would have to agree with Alexis Ohanian that by allowing this flaw to exist not only are we susceptible to state surveillance but surveillance from all sorts of parties capable of exploiting the flaw. Therefore it would be vital for the government to fix the flaw, and if surveillance was absolutely necessary to pursue traditional methods such as recommended by Alan Dershowitz to go about accomplishing that task.

Works Cited

munkdebates. (2014, May 2). State Surveillance. Retrieved from MUNK Debates:

Reuters, T. (2014, Janurary 2). Edward Snowden NSA leak: NY Times, Guardian call for clemency. Retrieved from CBC News World:




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One response to “Analysis of the Munk Debates

  1. This is an interesting post. Thanks for summarizing some of the key arguments made in the 2014 Munk debate.

    In your description of Dershowitz’ position, you note that “surveillance technology is still a developing technology therefore to cancel it would be giving the enemy an advantage”. This seems like a straightforward position, but it hinges on the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘the enemy’. This is not how large-scale state surveillance works in practice, though. Rather, as discussed by Greenwald, it relies on a principle of maximum collection (“collect it all …”), with the idea that this will facilitate the *identification* of enemies. Everyone is de facto suspicious.

    You present a nuanced – and cautious – position. One important point is that the secretive nature of state surveillance institutions and processes presents a challenge to the goal of putting “evidence from both sides … up for public display”. If it were not for the whistleblowing of Snowden, the scope and implications of Five Eyes surveillance would be largely unknown. The combination of intrusive surveillance and extensive secrecy presents a challenge.