We mostly know the story, but it bears repeating: One year ago this week, Glenn Greenwald wrote a news story that would change the world forever. In it, we learned that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting enormous amounts of telephone metadata on what were presumably ordinary American citizens. The agency had done so without a warrant and without suspicion of any indiviudal person. The revelation changed forever how Americans think about national security, privacy, and civil liberties in the digital age.
More revelations soon followed. Among many others, these included NSA surveillance of web activity, mobile phone location data, and the content of email and text messages. The NSA also conducted many highly embarrassing acts of surveillance against allied or benign world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the conclave that recently elected Pope Francis. It had subverted commonly used encryption systems. It had co-opted numerous tech companies in its plans. Its leaders had repeatedly lied to, or at the very least misled, the U.S. Congress.
How far should surveillance go? What has been the value of the information gained? What have we given up in the process? What are the risks, should malign actors ever get their hands on the controls of the system?
We are able to ask these questions today because of one individual: Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the NSA who chose to make public the information to which he had access. We have no choice now but to debate it. That’s simply what democracies do whenever such momentous information becomes public.
Joining us at Cato Unbound this month are four individuals with extensive knowledge in the fields of national security and civil liberties: Cato Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes, Georgetown University Professor Carrie F. Cordero, and independent journalist Marcy Wheeler. Each brings a somewhat different perspective on the matters at hand, and we welcome them all to what is sure to be a vigorous debate.