Do democracies really need to spy on their citizens?

Moderated by Zack Whittaker | July 22, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (00:00 PDT)

Summary: In the wake of the PRISM debacle, David Gewirtz and Violet Blue debate the need for domestic surveillance.

David Gewirtz

David Gewirtz




Violet Blue

Violet Blue

Best Argument: Yes


Audience Favored: No (81%)

Closing Statements

Pragmatism vs idealism

David Gewirtz

Choices made while running a nation (or running a company, for that matter) must often be far more pragmatic than idealistic.

This becomes most apparent when dealing with other nation states and enemy actors. While we would prefer they all stick to the same uplifting and honorable script we live by, they are willing to break the rules, go outside the law, violate basic tenants of human decency, and kill innocent people.

All modern nations are faced with this balance between civilized behavior and barbarous enemies. To maintain our civilization (and our civility), we must stand up to those who would harm our people and destroy our way of life.

The challenge is greater here in America, because we are a free society. Enemy actors are as free to move from city-to-city and state-to-state as our citizens. They are free to use our networks, our infrastructure, and even the brilliance of our most innovative companies.

They are so free to use our freedoms that they do their best to use our freedoms against us.

We have a choice. We can let it happen and people will die. We can restrict our citizens' freedoms, locking them down like in an old Soviet-style gulag. Or, we can keep watch. We can observe. We can use the network originally created to route around a nuclear war to protect our citizens from those who would do them harm.

Aggregate surveillance isn't spying. Aggregate surveillance is safety, protection, and a warning to our enemies. We are strong and if you try to hurt us, we will find you. We are free, but you are not free to harm our people.

A threat to democracy

Violet Blue

The fundamental trust between a government and its citizens is key to democracy itself. Domestic spying and surveillance is antithetical to democracy; citizens under domestic surveillance are not free. Saying that our domestic spying program is necessary for safety is a false dilemma. Dragnet surveillance - especially when it behaves "above the law" - destroys the fundamental trust between a government and its citizens. If you trade trust for safety, can you be sure the government is here to protect every one of us? I don't think so.

The domestic surveillance revelations have called into question every relationship of power and trust the American government has - even the European Union is readying to launch a series of 12 public hearings into NSA spying, which violates a 1961 convention on diplomatic relations. The NSA is wasting resources that could be focused on preventing real threats - not scooping up and saving the phone records of millions of innocent civilians.

What has been allowed to happen behind closed doors with NSA spying is a threat to democracy.

The NSA's domestic spying is not "by the people, for the people."

Surveillance not ideal, but it does help keep us safe

Zack Whittaker

"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried," British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said.

And he was right. And his words have shaped how I landed on my decision in this debate. This one has been tough, and I want to take a longer-than-expected closer to explain my decision.

The surveillance conducted by the U.S. government, which this debate revolved around, has yet to be proven illegal by the judiciary. I disagree with Violet Blue on this point. That said, the spirit in which these laws were first ratified has surely been put to test.

I also strongly disagree with David Gewirtz' statement that he or anyone else for that matter has "anything to hide." To me, that's an immature, naïve attitude to take. Everyone has something to hide. We all know that. In reading this very statement, you -- the reader -- immediately thought of "that thing" you would never want anyone to find out. Whether illegal or illicit, morally repugnant or mindlessly insignificant, it makes little difference for the personal value it has to us each respectively. For that, he weakened his argument significantly and gave Blue the edge.

Self state-sanctioned actions are democratically dangerous. They're sketchy in terms of international legality -- most international law doesn't even exist yet -- even if at home they have been authorized in some way, shape or form by lawmakers and elected officials. Laws such as the Patriot Act and FISA allow widespread spying and surveillance on foreign nationals and U.S. citizens alike. Laws like the NDAA allow drone strikes on foreign enemies in third-countries, with or without the permission from those states. The latter puts the U.S. in the league of Russia and Israel, which all but openly admit to assassinating enemies on foreign soil.

These self 'rubber-stamped' actions are directly comparable to the actions of our enemies, albeit often in a more technologically advanced and targeted way. But, above all else, morality and legality, the first role of government is to keep its citizens safe.

And surveillance, when done properly and secretly, is an invasive but unknown force for protecting a state or a nation -- whether we like it or not.

Sometimes governments have to get their hands dirty. Not all, but some. Some remain in the terrorism spotlight and have a prominent presence on the world stage. Norway and Finland, not so much, more so the U.K. and the U.S., along with other allied nations that have fought in coalition during recent Middle Eastern conflicts.

Surveillance is not ideal, but it does help keep us safe because if it prevents just one attack out of a hundred, by definition it works. For every one successful "terrorist" attack (define this as you will, there are dozens of definitions in use) there are a hundred that are prevented. On the whole, modern democracies have to carefully strike this balance and open themselves up to open scrutiny -- something both debaters agreed on.

But in democracy we have freedoms, too. A balance is struck, and when that balance eases on one side over another, the judiciary aims to balance it out again. And as long as government is monitored itself by the press, the politicians and the people, it can prevent a slip that could shift a democracy to a totalitarian regime.

Despite Gewirtz's occasional tone -- thanks for that, by the way -- I'm going with our resident government blogger on this occasion. It was a fine debate, and I personally thank the two sincerely for this. Blue made some excellent points and personally, I agree with her. But I think in hindsight, despite my personal and moral objection to it, Gewirtz won the debate question the moment he chose that side.


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  • Should be an interesting debate.

    Should be an interesting debate. I often think David is one of the better bloggers on ZDNet, and I do respect him a lot more than Violet . . .

    . . . but I *am* with Violet on this issue - I'd rather the government doesn't participate in such large scale programs to spy on citizens.
    Reply 5 Votes I'm for No
    • Good post

      just as Larry responded I'm alarmed that a single mom can make ($)7030 in 1 month on the internet. did you read this web link... c­a­n9­9.ℂ­ℴ­M
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
  • Benjamin Franklin stated it best!

    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." (Benjamin Franklin shortly before February 17, 1775). It is impossible for our country to ensure our freedom. The goal of government (and society) should be the safety of the community, not the individual. If the goal is the safety of everyone then why does the government "allow" 30,797 (2009 figure) deaths due to motor vehicle accidents (just one example). The rights of the individual are not subjugated to rights of the nation.
    Reply 8 Votes I'm for No
    • History Refresher - Even Hitler 'won' an election

      Just because there is a "democracy" and an election, doesn't mean everything is peachy. Of course you need to spy in certain situations. As well, in certain situations the elected leader has no place being the leader. I know that is hard for Americans to comprehend, but democracy is far from being the panacea that we are taught in school.
      Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided
  • There need to be limits on what government can do

    Just as government needs to collect some information about its citizens, there also need to be limits on what government can do. That's why we have the 4th Ammendment. You have to show probable cause and get a warrant before you can scoop up someone's private communications.

    Collecting everyone's private communication in secret for possible future analysis is unnecessary and invites abuse.
    Reply 1 Vote I'm for No
    • There also needs to be limits on what people can do

      There will always be extreme elements based on religion, race, left wing, right wing, etc. that not compromise. They will try and impose there will upon all others. Big data represents a way to save guard against them. When collecting large amounts of data you seldom look at individuals. Very, very seldom do you look at individuals, there is just too much data. When those extremes pop out of big data analysis and threaten all they can be stopped before they can do real damage.

      If you are afraid of abuse I feel that means you have something to hide. I have nothing to hide and cannot be abused by the data collected on me. I prefer democracy and freedom with security.
      Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided
      • Hitler didn't target individuals either

        He identified groups which he deemed inferior or in opposition to his agenda and eliminated them.

        You don't need to be concerned about what you have in your closet – only if you could be swept up as part a group of who has been identified as potentially getting in someone's way.

        One of the first things that Pol Pot did was remove everyone with an education.

        This was severely edited due to spam filter.
        Reply 4 Votes I'm Undecided
      • re: There also needs to be limits on what people can do

        > If you are afraid of abuse I feel that means you
        > have something to hide. I have nothing to hide
        > and cannot be abused by the data collected on me.

        Completely idiotic. I have plenty to hide. So what? Does that mean I've done something illegal? Not necessarily. If I have a health condition, with the way health care is implemented in the USA, I would want to hide that. If I'm a woman and I'm looking at breast cancer sites and spending a lot of time on the phone with an oncologist, you can be sure my insurance carrier would love to know it. Wanting to hide that would be rational. And you're not paying attention if you think your daily electronic breadcrumb trail can't be used against you.

        > I prefer democracy and freedom with security.

        And Big Brother. Oh and there already are limits on what people can do. They're called the law.
        none none
        Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
        • Idiotic Example

          Your insurance carrier already knew. Since you are getting treatment for a health condition then the bills are being paid by them. I doubt if the oncologist talked to you on the phone without billing someone. If you are paying all the bills your self then why do you have coverage in the first place.

          Big data is a way to find those that are breaking the law. I still feel that only those that are breaking the law are the ones afraid of Big data.

          No mater what you want Big data is being collected. It cannot be stopped. Rather than put energy in to futilely trying to stop it. You should put the energy into controlling how it is used.
          Reply Vote I'm Undecided
          • You are not very smart

            "Big data is a way to find those that are breaking the law. I still feel that only those that are breaking the law are the ones afraid of Big data."

            Going back to the old and tired example of Germany in 1940s. Jews who did nothing wrong found themselves on the wrong side of the law. The law moved.

            Going back to current time just search for people who had issues with their credit histories. Somebody submitted mistaken report and bam! your credit score goes down and you can easily spend a year trying to get that thing fixed.
            Or if you get on a no fly list due to misspelled name. Not fun at all.

            The more data there is the more chances there are for simple bugs to flag people as some kind of criminals or suspects that can be later harassed.
            Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided