The Munk Debate: State Surveillance in the 21st Century

In May of 2014, a Munk Debate took place at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto regarding state surveillance in the 21st century. Michael Hayden, a retired four star general who served as the director of the CIA, and Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard, suggested that democracies are justified in using mass state surveillance in order “to fight complex and unconventional threats” (Munkdebates, 2014). Glenn Greenwald, a journalist and columnist for First Look Media, and Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of reddit, on the other hand, argued that these surveillance programs and the power they generate from information technology jeopardizes our basic freedoms (Munkdebates, 2014).


Michael Hayden began by asking the question if there is a legitimate defense to our freedoms. He stated that the answer to this question is that it depends on facts, and “the totality of the circumstances in which we find ourselves” (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2014). He continued by painting a picture of the current state of surveillance, and argued that the descriptions of state surveillance methods are unclear and hard to comprehend. Indeed, most individuals are provided with a current snapshot without any information on what happened before (how these programs developed), information which may in fact provide a different interpretation if examined carefully. As a result, one must take the time to analyze these surveillance programs and recognize the need for them. According to Hayden, surveillance systems are imperative in preserving national security.

Drawing parallels to these remarks, Alan Dershowitz suggested that surveillance, when used properly, could actually protect our civil liberties. He noted that “no state has survived without surveillance and no state deserves to survive with too much surveillance on their citizens” (CBC, 2014). Dershowitz argued that there are varying degrees of surveillance, and that there is a clear difference between street cameras and hidden microphones in your home. For these reasons, he suggested that when it comes to surveillance, matters of degree matter. Interestingly, much of Dershowitz’s statements called for a reformulation of the current state of surveillance, one that imposes constraints in order to strike the balance between the need for protective intelligence and the need for protection against privacy.


It was clear that the opposition had a number of questions regarding this last point. Alexis Ohanian argued that the right to privacy is fundamental to who we are, and that it must be balanced proportionately with security. According to Ohanian, it is the surveillance state that goes at odds with these rights – and it’s unacceptable. The country faces economical threats, technological threats, and threats surrounding security. He stated that technology backing the internet has been threatened in the name of counter terrorism, thanks to the NSA who has “[collected] information from millions of citizens” (Regan, 2014: 32). Instead of increasing security, Ohanian argued these surveillance programs only make the system less secure. He concluded that “while the internet must be defended, it must not be done at the cost of our security” (CBC, 2014).

Finally, but no less important, Glenn Greenwald argued that there would be no debate if surveillance programs were being used only to survey those who pose a national security risk. As a result, Greenwald believes that these programs have nothing to do with counter terrorism measures. It is not a “limited system of focus” like his opponents suggest. He argues that the best way to describe the NSA and its mandate is through its aggressive boasting. The new NSA collection posture, for example, states that they will “collect it all, sniff it all, know it all, process it all, [and] exploit it all” (CBC, 2014). Greenwald concludes that entire populations who are guilty of nothing are having their communications monitored for no reason whatsoever, and this surveillance is a profound violation of the rights of Americans.


Having initially thought that current surveillance programs were too intrusive, my thoughts began to change after reading an article by Johnny Yoo in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, which examined the legality of NSA surveillance of phone metadata (call billing records) and electronic communications data (email interception). Notably, Yoo states that while critics suggest that NSA surveillance “is too broad because ninety-nine percent of calls are unconnected to terrorism” (2014: 908), it is justified because finding a ‘needle in a haystack’ requires searching “millions of potentially innocent connections, communications, and links” (2014: 908). In rebuttal to this point, Greenwald and Ohanion would likely respond by arguing that Yoo is using terrorism as a pretext to justify the surveillance of millions of citizens, and that the collection of this information is not “relevant to a terrorism investigation” (Yoo, 2014: 911). However, as evident from the article, FISC (The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) rejects these kinds of arguments because the NSA database has to be broad enough to intercept terrorist calls. Additionally, while Greenwald and Ohanion suggest that terrorism is just a pretext, we cannot deny that terrorism is prominent in the 21st century and poses a threat to national security.

In terms of violating constitutional privacy rights, the NSA programs need to be examined further. Yoo argues that the collection of phone metadata has the least number of difficulties regarding privacy. This is because a number of court cases have affirmed that “calling information, such as the phone number dialed, [is] beyond Fourth Amendment protection because the consumer [has] voluntarily turned over the information to a third party for connection and billing purposes” (Yoo, 2014: 916). Moreover, we must note that Fourth Amendment protection applies only to the content of communication, which the NSA is prohibited from accessing. Yoo also states that the second NSA program, which collects electronic communication data, is limited to the interception of non-US persons communicating outside of the United States (evident by s.702 of FISA), and the Fourth Amendment does not apply to these individuals.

While I would like to have a concrete opinion on the matter, I believe that a more thorough investigation of the programs is necessary. This post only touches the tip of an iceberg in a sea of state surveillance literature. As evident by Yoo’s article, the NSA programs seem relatively harmless on paper. What I would ask is whether or not the NSA is abusing their power and screening the content of the data in question. Additionally, in terms of the surveillance of email accounts, the NSA claims that they are solely monitoring the communication between non-US citizens communicating outside of the country – but is this true? Indeed, all of the speakers at the Munk Debate had a number of facts to back up their claims, but I would like to authenticate these facts before commenting further.

Note: I found it particularly interesting that General Michael Hayden made a statement in his closing remarks regarding Glenn Greenwald’s facts, and that if they were true, he would vote against the motion too.

Sources Cited

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (2014). State Surveillance: The Munk Debate. Retrieved from

Munkdebates. (2014). State Surveillance. Retrieved from

Regan, L. (2014). Electronic Communications Surveillance. Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, 66(3), 32-42.

Yoo, J. (2014). The Legality Of The National Security Agency’s Bulk Data Surveillance Programs. Harvard Journal Of Law & Public Policy, 37(3), 901-930.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Munk Debate: State Surveillance in the 21st Century

  1. You provide a great summary of key arguments made during the debate. Good work.

    I strongly recommend looking into the role that John Yoo played in the post-11 September 2001 activities of the US government. Run a web search for “John Yoo torture”. There is, I believe, good reason to be cautious when reading Yoo’s comments on the ethical dimensions of security practices.

    I commend your argument that arriving at an informed opinion about state surveillance requires a ‘much more thorough investigation of the programs’. However, the inherent secretiveness of these programs (and to agencies that operate them) makes this difficult. The current debate would not be taking place without the whistle-blowing efforts of Edward Snowden. Historically, surveillance practices that have violated individual and collective rights and liberties have been protected behind walls of official secrecy and justified as necessary measures.