Watching a Twitter conversation between celebrities unfold is always rather entertaining, but an unlikely debate on surveillance between NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and The Wire creator David Simon drew especial attention on Sunday, 20 March — just a day before Twitter's 10th anniversary.
The conversation was sparked by a tweet by national security blogger Marcy Wheeler who referenced a New York Times article about the Paris terrorist attacks in a tweet and tagged Snowden. The article highlights the use of "burner" cellphones (disposable prepaid cellphones used without a contract) in November's attacks.
Snowden, who now lives in Russia where he has asylum, humorously responded by referencing The Wire, a popular TV series that features drug kingpins using burner phones to cover up drug deals.
The tweet was also probably a response to common criticism that Snowden's revelations about the NSA's spying methods in 2013 helped terrorists "go dark" and evade detection — a debate that had been reignited in the light of the Paris attacks.
Simon, whose Twitter handle was not directly tagged, got wind of the tweet and quickly responded arguing that mass surveillance techniques would allow authorities to access metadata before the burners are disposed.
The debate quickly evolved into a stream of more than 20 tweets back and forth that touched on the differences between drug sales and transnational terrorism with regards to burners and surveillance, in addition to discussions about US intelligence and rights to privacy.
The discussion also touched on Snowden's decision to blow the whistle on the NSA's surveillance programme, which Simon commended, but argued that the revelations should have been limited to domestic spying programmes rather than international ones.
Eventually, Snowden tweeted that he had to go, but cautioned that "though spying has benefits, history reminds us of that it comes at a price."
The pair respectfully agreed to disagree with Simon closing the discussion by thanking Snowden for the thoughtful and civil discourse.
For those interested in reading the whole debate, Twitter has curated the discussion into its Moments collection.