Anorak News | Michele Catalano: The backpack, the pressure cooker, the cops and the evolution of WTF really happened

Michele Catalano: The backpack, the pressure cooker, the cops and the evolution of WTF really happened

by | 5th, August 2013


PROCRASTINATION is usually a bad habit but occasionally it pays off. Like last week, when the American blogger (and professional writer) Michele Catalano had something terrifying happen to her family: six agents from a “joint terrorism task force” came to her house and spent 45 minutes questioning and searching after she did a Google search for “pressure cookers” and her husband searched for “backpacks,” both on the same computer. Catalano said the agents claimed to do a hundred such anti-terror searches per week.

Having cops raid your house on suspicion of terrorism is scary under any circumstances but is extra-freakout-worthy in the creepy creeping Orwellian environment of today’s America. Thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden, we know the NSA monitors the communications of pretty much everyone in the country (at least everyone using phones or the Internet). Still, authoritarian apologists could reassure themselves or shout down dissenters by insisting “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

But even if you’re trusting enough to believe that, it’s still hard to take comfort in knowing “If any two search terms you’ve ever Googled look suspicious together, you have nothing to worry about except the prospect of armed government agents raiding your house.”

So after Catalano shared her story last Wednesday, all the non-procrastinating journalists with proper work habits  spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning promptly writing about it, and pretty much everybody took for granted that either the NSA was spying on Google searches or Google was outright sharing its data with the agency (just as Verizon and other companies do).

That’s why all the non-procrastinated stories had headlines like Gizmodo’sYes, the FBI Is Tracking American Google Searches” or the Atlantic Wire’sGoogle pressure cookers and backpacks, get a visit from the feds.”

Then things got weird[er]. The FBI—which, along with DHS or NSA, is the agency most likely to come to the mind of any American who hears the words “joint terrorism task force”—denied having ever visited Catalano’s family or searched her home.

Catalano tweeted a counter-protest: “I’ll say it once: I didn’t make it up. Shutting down Twitter for the day. Thanks to those defending my integrity.”

But, hold on—the FBI didn’t deny that the Catalanos had a vist from a terror task force; it merely said that the Nassau County Police Department, not the Feds, were behind it. And the non-procrastinating journalists who promptly reported this development were soon contradicted by a statement from police in nearby Suffolk County, saying in part:

“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’.”

The early birds caught the wrong worm: this time, blame for a creepy American Orwell incident fell not on a paranoid surveillance state but a paranoid ex-boss. But for all the ever-evolving news stories to come out of the incident, none of them have answered the questions: just how old were those Google searches, anyway? And how far apart?

There are certain circumstances where any sane, sensible, non-paranoid employer might find such a Google search history worth a call to the cops. For example: if “pressure cooker” and “backpack” were the last two Google searches made on an employee’s computer just before said employee quit via a vaguely threatening resignation letter full of ominous phrases like “Everybody will be sorry they didn’t appreciate me” … yeah, even I’d call the cops then. Probably.

Posted: 5th, August 2013 | In: Reviews, Technology Comment | TrackBack | Permalink