It is every internet browser's worst nightmare: Google searches and browser history lead the feds to their door. One Long Island woman set off an internet panic attack when she claimed she was visited by anti-terrorism authorities after she searched Google for pressure cookers. But local police have a different, much less sexy explanation.
Michele Catalano is a Long Island-based journalist who has written for Boing Boing, Forbes and used to be a blood-thirsty warblogger, back in the day. Yesterday she was shocked when her husband told her that "six agents from the joint terrorism task force" had knocked on her door. She dashed off a blog post on Medium, the lavishly-funded blogging start-up, claiming that all she'd done was searched Google for a pressure cooker, while her husband had looked up a backpack. The NSA's all-seeing eye has come home!
It was a confluence of magnificent proportions that led six agents from the joint terrorism task force to knock on my door Wednesday morning. Little did we know our seemingly innocent, if curious to a fault, Googling of certain things was creating a perfect storm of terrorism profiling. Because somewhere out there, someone was watching. Someone whose job it is to piece together the things people do on the internet raised the red flag when they saw our search history.
Cue internet privacy shit-storm.
But the Suffolk County Police Department, which visited Catalano, now says in a statement that they visited Catalano's home yesterday because of an old-fashioned tip. A computer company discovered that one of their employees—presumably either Catalano's husband or son—had been conducting suspicious searches on their work computer, and contacted the police.
The statement reads:
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.”
Police interviewed the man and investigated the incident and found nothing. Thus, our dystopian privacy nightmare hellscape is slightly less nightmarish.
But the speed at which Catalano's post spread shows the resonance of any surveillance stories, post-Edward Snowden. The scope of the NSA's revelations must have led journalists and Twitter-ers to ignore the fact that Catalano's story seemed fishy from the beginning. This started with the exact nature of the authorities who visited her. At first she'd tweeted that the FBI had visited her home, but she later walked that back in her blog post to the vague "joint terrorism task force".
The Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) brings together the anti-terrorism efforts of many different federal, state and local agencies, which meant anyone from the FBI down to the local police could have visited her. Catalano's post led journalists down a rabbit warren of different agencies, searching for her uninvited houseguests with their panoptic powers. (Shortly after her blog post blew up, Catalano tweeted that she would not be giving interviews or additional details about her story.)
The resulting boon-doggle helped spread the story, and offered a glimpse into the fraught world of intragency anti-terrorism operations. An FBI spokeswoman, Kelly Langmesser, told Gawker that the visit was a local police matter conducted by the Nassau and Suffolk County Police Departments. But Detective Vincent Garcia, a spokesman for the Nassau County Police Department told me that his department had nothing to do with it.
"I read it, and I'm like, OK, this is kind of interesting. Is it even possible to do that?" Garcia said. "Probably, but I don't think my department has the ability to do that."
Then there was the matter of the fateful Google searches themselves. In her blog post, Catalano casts about for what flagged her family as potential bombers, and remembers that her son had been reading news reports about the Boston Bombing. She writes:
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.
The actually scary part of Catalano's story—the creepy correlation of Google history in some distant control room—started, and ended, in her imagination.
Media critic Jay Rosen has coined the Snowden Effect, to talk about the flood of new, valuable information about the surveillance state sparked by NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden. But there's another Snowden Effect, an evil twin that lets bogus information latch onto the Snowden story like a parasitical fish on a whale, harnessing its unstoppable momentum to spread. This is what happened when The Observer, The Guardian's sister publication, was forced to retract bullshit single-source story based on a wacko former NSA analyst. Now bloggers are dressing up their otherwise unremarkable personal stories with creepy Snowdenesque flourishes, and credulous journalists are amplifying it because it seems of apiece with everything else going on.
This flailing is probably a consequence of our having a vast and intrusive electronic surveillance system whose contours are kept secret. If the FBI, or the cops, or whoever is actually mass-monitoring random people's Google searches, that's scary, and, given the recent NSA revelations, not out of the question. But Catalano's story doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know: Never trust someone who loves Quinoa.