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How Google searches for 'pressure cookers' and 'backpacks' led the cops to a writer's door

How Google searches for 'pressure cookers' and 'backpacks' led the cops to a writer's door

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boston bomb backpack (ap/fbi)
boston bomb backpack (ap/fbi)

All it took was a few humble Google searches to send shivers throughout the collective spines of the internet this week. Michele Catalano, a writer for Death & Taxes magazine, wrote on Medium about how a group of armed men suddenly showed up at her house in Long Island, New York, on the morning of Wednesday, July 31st and began questioning her husband about "pressure cookers" and bombs. Catalano, who said she wasn't home at the time, recalled that weeks prior, she searched for pressure cookers online. And that her husband separately searched for backpacks. And that her 20-year-old son had used the internet to follow the news of the Boston Marathon bombing, which was reportedly carried out with pressure cooker explosives in backpacks.

Because the questions the plainclothes officers asked her husband seemed to match so closely to the search queries she knew the household had entered online, Catalano concluded that her family had tripped some sort of online surveillance warning. "Little did we know our seemingly innocent, if curious to a fault, Googling of certain things was creating a perfect storm of terrorism profiling," she wrote.

Catalano, went on to vividly imagine the scenario that led the men to her door:

But my son’s reading habits combined with my search for a pressure cooker and my husband’s search for a backpack set off an alarm of sorts at the joint terrorism task force headquarters. That’s how I imagine it played out, anyhow. Lots of bells and whistles and a crowd of task force workers huddled around a computer screen looking at our Google history.

In the wake of yet another round of revelations about the NSA's internet surveillance capabilities, it didn't take long for Catalano's story to go viral. Many of the outlets and bloggers covering Catalano's post went on to offer their own analysis and speculation that Google had handed her family's search information over to authorities, or allowed them to access it through some means. Google declined to comment. But sources inside the search industry acknowledged that Google did not have a connection to this particular incident. As it turns out, the truth was at once more benign and more personally disquieting.

the truth was at once more benign and more personally disquieting

Catalano first suggested, then recanted, that the FBI might have been the ones at her door. But an FBI spokesperson told The Washington Post on Thursday afternoon that the visitors to her home had actually been from the Nassau County Police Department and the Suffolk County Police Department.

The Suffolk County Police Department verified as much later that evening, emailing a statement to reporters confirming that its officers had indeed visited the home. But they said they did so not from some automated surveillance system, nor Google, but rather due to a "tip from a Bay Shore based computer company regarding suspicious computer searches conducted by a recently released employee." As the statement continues:

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 non-criminal in nature.

As for which computer company called police about the search activity, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County Police Department declined to specify, telling The Verge that police didn't want the company to be penalized for "doing the right thing and coming forward with information."

Reacting to the police statement, Catalano published a post on her personal Tumblr saying that it was her husband's search queries, made at his old job, that arose suspicion. She acknowledged her original post may have been misleading, but insisted she had tried to tell the truth as she knew it at the time. A Suffolk County Police spokesperson also told The Verge the investigation on Catalano's family had been concluded. She declined to do media interviews.

"a Bay Shore based computer company."

The entire incident reveals the confusing nature of internet surveillance in America right now. On the one hand, there's a growing body of evidence revealing that the federal government is combing through user information collected by the largest internet companies — Google among them. It's easy to see why Catalano and so many other people reached the conclusion that somehow, a sophisticated, impersonal tech system was able to piece together innocuous Google searches over time, brand the aggregate information suspicious, and alert authorities accordingly. This idea of collecting seemingly benign information and using it to paint a sinister portrait is the basis for an entire legal argument, the "mosaic theory," for why the federal government should be able to collect and keep certain information secret. Instead, at least in this case, the Google searches were deliberately passed along to local police by someone much closer to Catalano's family. We're still not sure how exactly they obtained the information and how they sent it to police. But it goes to show that the surveillance state can be leaner and smaller than the NSA or FBI, and that it's also very much a state of mind.