The internet is a sacred identity-shaping dream palace to which we must preserve our unfettered and private access at all costs. For Glenn Greenwald, that’s the version of the web that’s at stake in the war over mass surveillance he helped kick-start by first reporting on the NSA documents leaked to him by Edward Snowden last June.

Greenwald made the emotionally charged pitch Friday night in Toronto to a capacity crowd during the latest instalment of the Munk Debates

"It is the place where we explore who we are as human beings, where we meet our friends, it’s where we think, it’s everything about who we are," he said in his final plea for hearts and minds at Roy Thomson Hall.

Greenwald teamed up with Reddit co-founder, investor and open-internet activist Alexis Ohanian to try to shoot down the motion, "Be it resolved the surveillance state is a legitimate defense of our freedoms."

Hear the full debate

You can listen to the full Munk Debate about the surveillance state on CBC Radio 1's Ideas on Thursday May 8 starting at 9 p.m. Eastern/9.30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Famed American civil liberties lawyer Allan Dershowitz and former NSA and CIA chief Michael Hayden - by many accounts a chief architect of what’s known as "the surveillance state" - came together to round out the opposing side.

Over a hugely entertaining and often heated 85-minutes of intellectual warfare, the two sides touched on the major flashpoints of the surveillance issue and managed to inject a dose of nuance not usually found in debates on such hugely polarizing topics.

Even Edward Snowden, the man who made the evening possible, found a way to make an appearance - though a recorded video message - to bless the event from his refuge in Russia.

Morality and ethics

NSA Michael Hayden

Michael Hayden, former NSA director and CIA chief, is by many accounts one of the principal U.S. architects of what’s commonly referred to as "the surveillance state." (The Associated Press)

Almost a year into the Snowden affair it’s almost impossible to understate the impact of Snowden's leaks on public perception of the morality of government spymasters and the ethics of whistle-blowing. The pendulum of public opinion has swung back and forth wildly, from "traitor" on one side to "patriot" on the other. But it has also often hovered somewhere over the grey area in between.

Regardless of which side a person is on, one thing’s for sure: Most people have spent at least a few minutes over the past year trying to form an opinion about how much privacy – if any – must be given up for the sake of security.

As the debate kicked off the mood was civil, but any pretense of politeness evaporated soon after the opening remarks. The debaters interrupted each other, hurled a veiled insult or two, and repeatedly accused their opponents of hiding their true, more radical colours.

Alan Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz is a famed American civil liberties lawyer and professor at Harvard Law School. In the Munk Debate, he allowed that the surveillance state was an unregulated mess, but insisted it was desperately needed and that with the right amount of regulation it could be tamed. (Sergei Chuzavkov/The Associated Press)

"No matter how much you yell at me, it won’t change my point," Greenwald seethed at one point, visibly irritated as Dershowitz repeatedly attempted to interrupt him.

Early on in the debate, Hayden complained his time limit of two minutes "just isn’t enough time to correct all [Greenwald’s] inaccuracies."

Ohanian largely stayed out of the testier exchanges, instead concentrating on some of the indirect consequences of surveillance.He returned repeatedly to the idea that online spying threatens the economic security of United States, with surveillance-leery internet users taking their business elsewhere.

"Both of our countries are huge draws for money and talent from all over the world, because our tech sectors are leading the way. But the U.S. economy alone stands to lose over $180 billion because now our global user base is thinking twice before signing up for our services."

The intensity of the debate never let up, but there was no definitive knock-out punch delivered by either side. For that they would have at least had to agree on a common definition for "the surveillance state," but they couldn't even come to a consensus on that.

Greenwald cast it as a greedy vacuum, eager to suck up more and more data and grow to an infinite size without a plan for managing the information or holding itself accountable.

Hayden countered that Greenwald had concocted a surveillance bogey-man, questioned the trustworthiness of Greenwald’s stats about "millions" of tapped phone calls, and substituted his own, far smaller numbers in their place.

"Motives matter," Hayden chimed repeatedly throughout the evening. If the intentions of the people at the steering wheel of the surveillance-state were good, he said, then it was defending freedoms. He was happy to leave it to the public to trust in the good motives.

Unregulated mess

Unlike Hayden, his teammate was able to score some verbal body blows on Greenwald, but his positions often overlapped confusingly with those of his opponents. Dershowitz allowed that the surveillance state was an unregulated mess, but insisted it was desperately needed and that with the right amount of regulation it could be tamed.

Alexis Ohanian

Reddit co-founder and open-internet activist Alexis Ohanian (centre) addresses a protest against internet monitoring in New York. He failed to make significant headway in the Toronto Munk Debate over the legitimacy of government surveillance of citizens. (Richard Drew/The Associated Press)

"It’s the only advantage we have over our enemies," Dershowitz pleaded. "We have to use it."

What he didn’t do, and what Greenwald hammered him on quite effectively, was paint a picture of what his benign surveillance state would look like.

If Greenwald had a chink in his own armour, it was his vague description of an alternative to mass surveillance. Securing phone or internet records should require a warrant, he said, and for that authorities need to be able to demonstrate probable cause. But he didn’t present a scenario where investigators could do this without some form privacy breach. Finding vulnerability, Dershowitz pounced and refused to let up.

He apparently struck a nerve - it was one of the few points that garnered Dershowitz’s team any applause. It’s not hard to imagine this is the main surveillance-related conundrum being turned over in the Oval Office in Washington or at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa: If we don’t use this surveillance system we’ve got, how do we stay a step ahead of the legitimate threats that are actually out there?

NSA Surveillance

After public protests in the U.S. against bulk surveillance of citizens, the President announced a 90-day review of how the U.S. government uses large sets of data. But in the White House report about that review, released May 2, the NSA was completely ignored. (Associated Press)

It’s exactly the pickle Obama finds himself in. After calling for an end to bulk surveillance, the President announced a 90-day review of how the U.S. government uses large sets of data. But in the White House report about that review, released on Friday, the NSA was completely ignored. Score one for indecision.

North of the border, Canadians have recently discovered they aren’t beyond the reach of a mass surveillance apparatus. In January, Greenwald worked with the CBC to shed light on an operation by CSEC – Canada's NSA counterpart – to snoop on users of airport Wi-Fi and track their movements over several days. The operation is a drop in the bucket compared to what the world now knows the NSA is doing, thanks to the Snowden leaks, but Canadians know a lot less about CSEC than Americans know about the NSA.

The debate between some of the people closest to the issue indicate we're still in the early days of coming to terms with the real contours of the surveillance state. Most of the Snowden documents haven’t been reported on yet – people will have to buy Glenn Greenwald’s upcoming book for more on that – and in Canada there are no plans for increased transparency at CSEC.

"I think we need less surveillance than what we have now," Dershowitz said in his closing remarks. "But a surveillance system directed against terrorism and those who facilitate terrorism, which will result in the intrusion on some privacy of some people who are innocent, is essential both to the protection of our citizens and the defence of our civil liberties."

For critics like Greenwald, that's still asking for too much trust in the government.

"Collect it all, sniff it all, process it all, know it all, exploit it all,” Greenwald said, quoting NSA directives leaked to him by Snowden.

"History proves you can’t trust the government to collect your information and not abuse it."

[Listen to the full Munk Debate about the surveillance state on CBC Radio 1's Ideas on Thursday May 8 starting at 9 p.m. Eastern/9.30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador.]