“Debates of the Century” Features Snowden and Zakaria on National Security

The final installment of the spring 2016 “Debates of the Century @NYU Wagner” series was a marquee event held on April 26 at the TimesCenter featuring former NSA analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden (via live video feed from Moscow) and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. The two debated whether “Government should have lawful access to any encrypted message or device.”

Barton Gellman, critically-acclaimed author and journalist, moderated the debate between Zakaria, who was for the motion, and Snowden, who was against. Hosted jointly by NYU Wagner and The Century Foundation, the debate took place in front of a sold-out crowd of over 340, with an additional almost 900 people watching the Livestream from as far away as Australia, Morocco, and Brazil.

The debate itself was a lively back-and-forth between Zakaria and Snowden in front of a crowd that was diverse, though skewed young, to which Zakaria joked that he “thought this would be mostly retirees.”

In arguing for the motion, Zakaria said that within a democracy, we “have to sacrifice liberty for security at some point.” He stated that we have “no absolute zone of privacy” when it comes to our messages and devices, as our employers and tech companies have access. In acknowledging his limited tech expertise, Zakaria quoted Bill Gates, who had previously described the issue as no different than asking the phone company for records. “It is the coolest thing I have,” Zakaria said of his iPhone, “but there’s something cooler—the United States Constitution.” He emphatically stated that “not even the iPhone is above the law.”

Snowden began arguing against the motion by saying, “fundamentally, tonight is not about politics.” He described the issue not as a choice between privacy and security, but rather, more security or less. According to Snowden, “computer security is a bigger problem than terrorism.” If we allow our government to access encrypted devices, then it means others can also do the same and we are weakening our entire country. He went on to say that “encryption saves lives,” and without it, everything stops. He argued that good intentions are not enough, as anyone can gain access to private documents given the right tools. “Math is math. It works the same for Mother Teresa and Osama bin Laden.” Snowden also referenced his fraught past with the NSA, saying “if I was for kittens, they’d be completely against them,” but said they actually stood shoulder-to-shoulder on this key issue because there’s a “damn good reason.”

The debate ended amicably, with Snowden calling Zakaria “a master debater.” The full debate video is available at www.debatesofthecentury.org.

Stay tuned for the fall 2016 debate lineup, which will be announced over the summer.