NSA Mass Surveillance Has Already Been Used For Ordinary Police Work

The NSA has used its ubiquitous wiretapping for ordinary police work. It used mass surveillance to prevent the murder of an eccentric artist, according to the New York Times. This means that the final line has been crossed; once mass surveillance of ordinary people is used for everyday police work, we are past the event horizon to a surveillance dystopia.

In an article outlining the vast capabilities of the NSA, the New York Times drops this tidbit:

The spy agency’s station in Texas intercepted 478 emails while helping to foil a jihadist plot to kill a Swedish artist who had drawn pictures of the Prophet Muhammad.

However, the New York Times fails to elaborate on the immense importance of this fact. This means that the NSA went far, far beyond its mandate of “national security”, and used its mass surveillance – ubiquitous wiretapping, really – for ordinary police work.

The Swedish artist in question is Lars Vilks, known for making outlandish art statements like putting images of the prophet Muhammed on crude dog sculptures in everyday traffic roundabouts. (It’s particularly unclear how the islamic prophet’s likeness was created, as he is traditionally imaged faceless.)

While preventing the murder of a highly eccentric artist may be admirable in its own right, it does not nearly qualify for national security concerns, nor for preventing terrorism.

So why is this important?

It’s important because it crosses the line we were promised would never, ever, be crossed – that the ubiquitous wiretapping would only be used for national security, and never for ordinary police work against citizens. Once that line is crossed, the wiretapping is used against the country’s own citizens.

For once you have prevented a murder, it’s easy to justify that you should be able to use the ubiquitous wiretapping to also prevent, say, rape and aggravated assault. No policymaker will protest that.

Once you are preventing serious violent crimes, it’s easy to justify that the NSA and the Police should use the ubiquitous wiretapping to prevent all violent crimes. People who protest that in the name of civil liberties will be shot down; “it’s a fundamental civil liberty to not be a victim of a violent crime”. And so, surveillance will be Newspeaked into civil liberties in televised debates by Big Brother hawks.

Once the wiretapping is preventing all violent crime, it will be repurposed to prevent all prison-time crime (described as “serious crime”), and from there, to prevent all crime. And those who speak up against this will be accused of “siding with criminals”.

I have seen each of these steps happen in the past decade in various stages of policymaking. Yes, I’m presenting a slippery slope argument, but these steps are typically just 3-4 years apart, and I’m speaking from first-hand experience with this development.

Then, once you have the ability to enforce all laws, out come the moral laws – typically first banning all kinds of sex that aren’t intended for reproduction, then everyday drugs, life-saving pharmaceuticals, and anything else that the regime du jour considers immoral for whatever reason.

The crucial line to never be crossed is that wiretapping of private communications must never be used for ordinary police work against people who aren’t under formal, individual, and prior suspicion of an identified and already-committed crime. And that line has now been crossed.

This means that we can unfortunately predict that the United States will take a very dark turn toward purebred fascism for a couple of decades, until it collapses under its own weight. We are now past the event horizon for that development.

The focus must now lie on isolating this development to the United States to prevent contagion to the rest of the world.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He lives on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, roasts his own coffee, and as of right now (2019-2020) is taking a little break.


  1. Zirgs

    Why do you think that these people weren’t under formal, individual, and prior suspicion of an identified and already-committed crime?

    Murder planning also is a crime.

    1. Rick Falkvinge

      Well, that’s quite obvious, isn’t it?

      The plot was uncovered through wiretapping. Therefore, there was no identified crime that would have warranted the wiretapping in the first place before the mass surveillance.

      As there was no identified crime, there was no formal, prior, and/or individual suspicion, either.

      You can’t motivate taking somebody’s liberty with things you found after you had already taken their liberty. That’s rather important, not to say absolutely critical, in the concept of civil liberties.

      Most importantly, this work should have been done by the Police and not by National Security.


      1. Zirgs

        The plot was uncovered through wiretapping
        Where do they say that?
        They just said that NSA intercepted these emails.
        Maybe they had a warrant and knew exactly which email addresses to monitor?

        1. Per "wertigon" Ekström

          If that is the case then they would not have needed the NSA to wiretap in the first place.

        2. gurrfield

          In that case they could just have gone to the ISP / e-mail deliverer with a court warrant to wiretap the specific user.

        3. Zirgs

          What if ISP and email server are not in USA?

        4. gurrfield

          Then there’s interpol and/or diplomacy.

          Actually the eccentric artist mentioned is a Swede so it would probably be a matter of ISP / email service provider was in Sweden or not and not USA.

  2. juan c

    all this sounds like a a late-night sci-fi movie… which doesn’t mean it isn’t true, just that the argument seem eroded by prior ficton, although not deliberately i would think. Still, going down that slippery-slope, i can totally see the awful near future if, for instance, russia uses this to “early-detect” and prosecute gay people… and of course, they would have to PAY for it to the US, and not just money. then i see how most “modern societies” can be controled this way, but what about those communities that have little or no internet access or electronic means, for instance? they could become “uncontrollable” and perhaps be deemed too dangerous… you know, like middle east and africa, and some places in latin america? of course all this mean we now have to start looking out for time-travelling killer robots… and the scary part is i’m only joking abot the time-travelling bit…

  3. steelneck

    Sorry if i do not remember, but exactly who is in jail for being about to kill Lars Vilks?

  4. Anonymous

    only an idiot would think that the mass spying has only been used twice to prevent what are classed as ‘ordinary crimes’, just as only an idiot would think that the use of mass surveillance was/is only for preventing terrorism! the whole aim is to know exactly what the ordinary people are up to and when there is something that enrages everyone, the various governments want to know what is going to be done and where, to try to prevent the implementation of whatever that particular thing is. do people really think that had it not been for the internet, we would all have known about the contents of SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and the like and have been able to organise proper demonstrations? why are all the latest ‘negotiations’ being conducted in secret? why is it that all the shit contents from the USA entertainment industries are being included again in the TPP? the people were supposed to just sit back and let governments, whom they are supposed to represent, not crap on, do that very thing and at the same time aid corporations to do whatever it wants to, not just protect itself, but to enhance it’s businesses, all at the detriment to ordinary people! when you have heads or governments like Obama and Cameron, who think the ordinary people should only be allowed to open their mouths in praise and move their arms to tick the ballot papers, but be quiet and subservient the rest of the time and who will go to any and all lengths to ensure their vision is what happens, regardless of the consequences, we are in deep shit! no country should be ruled by any corporation or any person that does more for a corporation (particularly of another country!) instead of for the people!!

    1. Anonymous

      Of course we knew, or at least suspected (until the “parallel construction” rules were publicised and confirmed it), but this is different because they are openly admitting what they are doing.

  5. sergio mauro

    Of course is mass surveillance intended for abuse, however this is one of a few cases where a secret service made its job, since killing an artist for silencing others is terrorism

    1. HHJA

      This is ridiculous, you Americans have deliberately pulled the world terrorism way out of it’s definition.

      Do you know what is terrorism?
      Monsanto creating chemical weapons like Agent Orange, and selling it across the world.
      Allowing other countries to use this weapon, then when they do – the U.N. comes marching through to take over they’re oil pipes.


      Monitoring all your citizens to make sure they remain obedient slaves, that’s terrorism.

      Labeling every person that doesn’t agree with your ideoligy of patriotism, that’s terrorism.

      You, are the terrorist – if you think the NSA did a good job.

      1. Antimon555

        I was under the impression that Agent Orange killed trees and other plants, not humans.

      2. anon

        I’m sorry, but I can’t see the connection between any of the various things you’ve listed as being “terrorism”, other than that they’re all presumably things you dislike. Could you please give a concise definition of “terrorism” that includes these things? Thank you.

        My own understanding of “terrorism”, is that it includes specifically violent attacks at civilian targets aimed at inspiring a climate of general fear. Due to the word’s nature as representing something very much hated among large populations, it frequently becomes something erroneously used to refer to anything that the speaker hates in a political sense, much like the word “nazi” is often used as a general pejorative. The problem with this is that the original meaning of the term becomes harder to convey. If, as you say, the Americans hijacked the term to mean something unlike its former meaning, could you explain what that meaning was? Also, do you happen to know of another word that could be used instead of what “terrorism” is currently used to mean?

  6. James

    Not to worry Rick. The more they abuse their power to surveil, the more they will motivate development of systems to provide truly anonymous communications. They are simply providing the motivation to redesign the internet for anonymity. It will be good for all. The event horizon is decentralization (of both computing and social arrangements), and that is about to change the rules of the game. The world is getting better everyday.

    1. seminal directive

      I truly hope this is the case, we need ordinary citizens of the world to.understand the gravity of the situation.

      Now more than ever, we need consensus. Unfortunately too many people are ignorant of what is happening, many of the citizens of Germany were not worried about what was hapoening until it became their own personal problem, until then it was too late. What state or country will come to our aid now? The allied forces are the ones doing this, we were supposed to be the good guys… I dont have a clear idea or picture about ehat needs to be done, our actions now will need to be backed by more and more action, but what that is supposed to be.. Well thats another story. Cryptology is fine but is only a band aid to the age old problem of the greater oppression that has occurred time and time again. Decentralisation of society perhaps? Maybe, but its a pretty massive goal…

  7. Nick Taylor

    If the artist in question was a target for murder because he specifically annoys Muslim extremists, and the NSA considers monitoring Muslim extremists a national-security issue (which given the degree with which the USA also annoys Muslims extremists, is possibly fair enough)…

    … then foiling this plot could well be a side effect of “legitimate” national-security focussed surveillance. If they were monitoring jihadists and the jihadists were planning on killing someone, it’d be kindof remiss if they didn’t intervene.

  8. Antimon555

    I am sure that there are a lot of good people in USA too. People that are active privacy advocates and look at this development with worry and disgust. You should write a survival guide for them. They will need one.

Comments are closed.