Could Googling 'pressure cookers' and 'backpacks' really get you in trouble with the feds?
A journalist claims she was visited by a terrorism task force after some innocent searching
Michele Catalano, a writer living in Long Island, N.Y., did what many home cooks have done before and searched online for a pressure cooker. Unfortunately, her husband had recently done a Google search for a backpack.
Google searches for those "two things together would have seemed innocuous" in the past, she wrote, "but we are in 'these times' now" — a reference to the Boston Marathon bombings in April. Suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev have been accused of making bombs out of pressure cookers and hiding them in duffel bags, which later killed three people and injured 264 more.
The result of those Google searches, according to Catalano's post on Medium, was this interaction on Wednesday morning between six armed agents of a "joint terrorism task force" and Catalano's husband as the men searched through their house:
Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked.
Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb? My husband, ever the oppositional kind, asked them if they themselves weren’t curious as to how a pressure cooker bomb works, if they ever looked it up. Two of them admitted they did. [Medium]
The implication is that Catalano and her husband were caught up in some kind of online monitoring operation by a counterterrorism agency. In light of the classified information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, it seemed like the perfect story to illustrate the dangers of living in a surveillance state.
However, The Guardian later reported that the so-called task force appeared to be made up of officers from the Suffolk County and Nassau County police departments. The FBI also denied that a task force visited her house.
The problem with her story, writes The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy, is that we don't have definitive proof that the authorities were visiting the couple because of their search history.
He notes that she didn't quote the men "saying they'd arrived because of their internet searches specifically." Instead, that's her supposition, he writes:
Could it be true? I've been doing a bit of research on Mr. Snowden's claims, which have mostly been filtered through Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, in recent weeks. The position of the U.S. government and former intelligence analysts I've talked to is that U.S. citizens aren't spied on via the Internet without warrants and that the notion that the government is trawling through vast databases at random is fanciful.
The Catalano piece certainly wants to imply that that's precisely what happened.... I'm somewhat skeptical — we simply don't know what we don't know. [The Christian Science Monitor]
"All of this sounds very shady, but it doesn’t exactly scream of an insidious, privacy-invading terrorism investigation," says Caitlin Dewey at The Washington Post. "At least it’s impossible to make that conclusion without more information."
If Catalano's suspicions are correct, however, it would serve as ample ammunition for privacy advocates rallying against PRISM, the NSA's electronic surveillance program.
As Jared Newman notes in TIME, "For all we've heard about PRISM over the last couple of months, what we haven’t seen are clear examples of innocent people — those who say they have nothing to hide — having federal agents enter their homes on the basis of some Google searches."
Catalano said she is convinced that is exactly what happened.
"This is where we are at," she wrote. "Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list."
UPDATE: Well, that explains a few things. The Suffolk County Police Department has released the following statement:
Suffolk County criminal intelligence detectives received a tip from a Bay Shore-based computer company regarding suspicious computer searches conducted by a recently released employee. The former employee’s computer searches took place on this employee’s workplace computer. On that computer, the employee searched the terms "pressure cooker bombs" and "backpacks."
After interviewing the company representatives, Suffolk County police detectives visited the subject’s home to ask about the suspicious internet searches. The incident was investigated by Suffolk County Police Department’s criminal intelligence detectives and was determined to be noncriminal in nature.
Any further inquiries regarding this matter should be directed to the Suffolk County Police Department.