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Spy On Me, I'd Rather Be Safe

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Live Transcript
  • Fear Google More than Government?

    Clip: Richard Falkenrath and David Cole compare the government access to personal data to the personal data collected by internet companies like Google.

  • Should We Trust Government Safeguards?

    Clip: Stewart Baker and Michael German disagree about the rules that regulate government use of data collected about citizens and whether they effectively protect privacy rights.

Debate Details

The NSA collects data on billions of phone calls and internet communications per day. Are these surveillance programs legal? Do they keep us safe? If not for the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, most Americans would be unaware of the vast amounts of information their government is secretly collecting, all in the name of national security. But whether you believe leakers are heroes or traitors, an important public conversation has finally begun, and we should ask ourselves: What tradeoffs are we willing to make between security and privacy?

As Benjamin Franklin might have asked, "Are we giving up essential liberty to purchase temporary safety, and thus deserving of neither?"


Presented in partnership with The McCain Institute for International Leadership.

The Debaters

For the motion

Stewart Baker

Attorney & Fmr. Assistant Secretary for Policy, Department of Homeland Security

Stewart Baker is a partner in the law firm of Steptoe and Johnson in Washington, D.C. His law practice covers cybersecurity, data protection, homeland... Read More

Richard Falkenrath

Principal, The Chertoff Group & Former Deputy Homeland Security Advisor

Richard Falkenrath, Deputy Assistant to President Bush and former Deputy Homeland Security Advisor, has held a range of leadership positions in U... Read More

Against the motion

David Cole

Professor of Law, Georgetown Univ. Law School

David Cole is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, a volunteer attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, the legal affairs correspondent... Read More

Michael German

Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington

Mike German is the senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, where he develops policy positions... Read More

Where Do You Stand?

For The Motion
  • We cannot identify terrorists in real time, and without bulk collection, there would be no way for our intelligence community to track and connect their movements.
  • Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act, the NSA's actions are legal.
  • NSA surveillance has made us safer. In 2009, intelligence officials were able to connect an email from a known terrorist in Pakistan to Najbullah Zazi, thwarting Zazi's plans to bomb the New York Subway system.
  • Terrorists dispersed around the world make use of our communications infrastructure. If we don't allow government to use this data, what is the alternative?
Against The Motion
  • Whether the current government is trustworthy and acts with good intentions is irrelevant. Building the capacity to collect and store the communications of every American is a capability open for abuse.
  • The NSA has overstepped its authority by conducting suspicionless surveillance of Americans, violating our First and Fourth Amendment rights.
  • By demanding or creating back doors into encrypted systems, the NSA has weakened internet security for everyone.
  • The sheer volume of data collected is making the NSA dysfunctional, and the agency's purported successes have been exaggerated; instead of a previously reported 54 terrorist plots thwarted by phone surveillance, the real number is only 1.

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The Research

The Research

U.S. Domestic Surveillance

Jonathan Masters
June 13, 2013

CFR Backgrounder on domestic surveillance under the Bush and Obama presidencies.

NSA Spying Is Making Us Less Safe

David Talbot interviews Bruce Schneier
September 23, 2013

The NSA's actions are making us all less safe. They're not just spying on the bad guys, they're deliberately weakening Internet security for everyone—including the good guys.

Simple Tests for Surveillance

James Lewis
June 12, 2013

All nations surveil communications. Surveillance reduces risk. This makes it worthwhile if the political risks can be managed and minimized.

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