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From the Atlantic Wire.

Google Pressure Cookers and Backpacks, Get a Visit from the Feds

Michele Catalano was looking for information online about pressure cookers. Her husband, in the same time frame, was Googling backpacks. Wednesday morning, six men from a joint terrorism task force showed up at their house to see if they were terrorists. Which prompts the question: How'd the government know what they were Googling?
One hundred times a week, groups of six armed men drive to houses in three black SUVs, conducting consented-if-casual searches of the property perhaps in part because of things people looked up online.

But the NSA doesn't collect data on Americans, so this certainly won't happen to you.

An update has been posted to this article.
Update 1:45 p.m.: In a conversation with The Atlantic Wire, FBI spokesperson Peter Donald confirmed The Guardian's report that the FBI was not involved in the visit itself. Asked if the FBI was involved in providing information that led to the visit, Donald replied that he could not answer the question at this point, as he didn't know.

We asked if the Suffolk and Nassau police, which The Guardian reported were the authorities that effected the raid, are part of the government's regional Joint Terrorism Task Force. They are, he replied, representing two of the 52 agencies that participate. He said that local police are often deputized federal marshals for that purpose — but that the JTTF "did not visit the residence." He later clarified: "Any officers, agents, or other representatives of the JTTF did not visit that location."

We are awaiting a response from Suffolk County police and the Department of Homeland Security which operates an investigatory fusion center in the region.

Guardian update:
The FBI told the Guardian that she was visited by the Nassau County police department "working in conjunction with Suffolk County police department". [...]

"From our understanding, both of those counties are involved," said FBI spokeswoman Kelly Langmesser. She said Suffolk County initiated the action and that Nassau County became involved, but would not elaborate on what that meant.

The Suffolk County police department directed inquiries back to the FBI.

The Nassau County police department said Catalano "was not visited by the Nassau police department" and denied involvement in the situation.

Another update has been posted to the Atlantic Wire article. I'll post some of it here, but can't post all of it and remain within fair use:
Update, 3:40 p.m.: It is still not clear which agency knocked on Catalano's door. [...]

Detective Garcia of the Nassau County Police, however, told The Atlantic Wire by phone that his department was "not involved in any way." Similarly, FBI spokesperson Peter Donald confirmed with The Atlantic Wire that his agency wasn't involved in the visit. He also stated that he could not answer whether or not the agency provided information that led to the visit, as he didn't know.

Local and state authorities work jointly with federal officials on terror investigations similar to the one Catalano describes. Both Suffolk and Nassau County's police departments are members of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), Donald confirmed. Suffolk County is also home to a "fusion center," a regionally located locus for terror investigations associated with the Department of Homeland Security. It wasn't the JTTF that led to the visit at Catalano's house, Donald told us. [...]

Calls asking for a response from the Suffolk Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security have not been returned.

Update 7:30pm: See the latest update in the Techland at Time magazine article excerpted below.  Suffolk county claims that they were alerted by an employer about searches involving the terms "pressure cooker" and "backpack".  Nobody is denying that the Catalano home search occurred or that it happened because of internet searches.  The question now is who was involved and what triggered it and what information is being monitored and/or data mined.  The various media organizations have updates that you can see in each of their articles. FBI denied involvement in the home search. Some of the media were able to get through to the two counties, others say they are no longer responding.  All articles I've seen say that Homeland Security has not responded yet about involvement of fusion centers, and all of them seem to have been able to get a response from the FBI.

Until it's clear who exactly showed up at the house, I've changed the title from "terrorism task force" to "law enforcement".  One or more of the articles have noted that federal agencies/task forces can deputize local law enforcement as federal marshals. Whether or not this is part of the confusion, or whether there was involvement from feds of any kind is not yet clear.

Update: More information about the employer, from Suffolk county, via the Atlantic Wire article:

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 non-criminal in nature.
Update to the Boing Boing article (which is excerpted below, but the last time I put the article update in the actual article excerpt, a commenter said that was dishonest (eyeroll), so sorry for the disconnected pieces but it's easier to see up here)
Update: The Christian Science Monitor and Forbes reported deeper into this story today, after it went viral. Turns out the law enforcement visit did happen, as did Internet activity surveillance--but Catalano and/or her husband were actually being monitored by a former employer, not the government. Forbes: "The Suffolk County police department says that it questioned the family after getting a tip about suspicious computer searches on an ex-employee’s work computer."
Update: Michele Catalano posted an update tonight on her Tumblr site.  There are a couple of additional paragraphs saying that she posted based on the information she had at the time and what was told to them by law enforcement until they got new information tonight.  And all in all, what she reported was true.
1) The information was accurate about how six armed law enforcement who told her husband they were a terrorism task force surrounded the house, then searched it and questioned her husband.  None of that has been denied.  For example, NYPD, though it's a local law enforcement agency, has a counterterrorism division. I've seen them myself at Occupy events, wearing jackets labeled "NYPD Counterterrorism Divison". Suffolk county might have a similar division or task force.
2) The reason for the raid was internet activity, the search terms, and was based on surveillance of search activity
3) The main thing that she got wrong was the origin of the internet activity, the workplace rather than the home, and the fact that the surveillance was being done in this case by an employer monitoring for Homeland Security like terms, and not the government.  
We found out through the Suffolk Police Department that the searches involved also things my husband looked up at his old job. We were not made aware of this at the time of questioning and were led to believe it was solely from searches from within our house.
Since we now know the internet searches that triggered the raid were done by her husband, I will update the title to reflect that.

Update: Emptywheel has a new post which details important facts about Q&A in Senate hearings and other information which indicates that in this case, the raid was triggered by an employer tip, but in other cases, it might well be a result of goverment surveillance.  From my own perspective, I am still not convinced that there was no government involvement in this case either because I think it's odd for an employer to be monitoring its employees for Homeland Security red flag search terms.  In any case, go read emptywheel's latest post and if you are interested in more, read her earlier writings on the same topic.

[...] a lot of people are suggesting it would be crazy to imagine that the Feds might have found Catalano via online searches.

Which is funny. Because just a day before this story broke, this exchange happened in the Senate between Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy and Deputy Attorney General James Cole. (after 1:45, though just before this exchange Leahy asks whether DOJ could use Section 215 to obtain URLs and bookmarks, among other records, which Cole didn’t deny)

Leahy: But if our phone records are relevant, why wouldn’t our credit card records? Wouldn’t you like to know if somebody’s buying, um, what is the fertilizer used in bombs?

Cole: I may not need to collect everybody’s credit card records in order to do that.


If somebody’s buying things that could be used to make bombs of course we would like to know that but we may not need to do it in this fashion.

Here's an excerpt from the blog post from Michele Catalano, describing what happened.

pressure cookers, backpacks and quinoa, oh my!

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.

Most of it was innocent enough. I had researched pressure cookers. My husband was looking for a backpack. And maybe in another time those two things together would have seemed innocuous, but we are in “these times” now. And in these times, when things like the Boston bombing happen, you spend a lot of time on the internet reading about it and, if you are my exceedingly curious news junkie of a twenty-ear-old son, you click a lot of links when you read the myriad of stories. You might just read a CNN piece about how bomb making instructions are readily available on the internet and you will in all probability, if you are that kid, click the link provided.
All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online.

I’m scared. And not of the right things.

It's not clear if her son actually did click the link from the CNN story, but it's CNN, how many people clicked that link?  Millions were following the Boston bombing story for days, so it had to be a lot of people.

The law enforcement officers who said they were a terrorism task force said they do 100 of these searches per week where they show up in black SUVs and search peoples' houses.

But the big question is, how did they get that Google search information, and did they have warrants to get it?  There are a hundred questions around this, and all of it at a time when various government officials are telling us, giving presentations and hearings that tell us about how they only collect phone company metadata, and it's so harmless.

Clearly they are collecting more than that, otherwise they'd never have known about the Catalanos or the other 100 families they search every week. We now know that it was an employer who was data mining the internet activity for this particular home raid, looking for terms that are similar to those that would be on a Homeland Security red flag list.  If what they told the husband is true about 100 raids/week, it seems unlikely that all of those raids are based on tips from employers, so the question remains about what triggers the rest of them.

We need some answers about this and we need them right now.  How can this not be mass surveillance, data mining the internet activity of all Americans?

Update: The latest information from Techland at Time Magazine includes claims from the Suffolk County police department that the "Google searches were reported by an employer" and that they did involve searches on the terms “pressure cooker bomb” and “backpack”.  The text of the update is below, with the excerpt from the article.

Our government was given leads by the Russian government about the Boston bombers, and I can understand spying on them as a result of it. But our spying government didn't even catch the Boston bombers before they made their horrific attack, and yet they are now collecting information, somehow, on people who search for pressure cookers and backpacks?  All of this while they are emphatically telling us that they are not spying on Americans or collecting the content of their communications or their internet activity?

What else will cause you to get a visit from an armed terrorism task force, arriving at your house, surrounding it, and asking to come in and search it?  How long before these thousands of searches by armed terrorism task forces end up getting somebody, some innocent somebody, killed?  



I see that emptywheel just published a post on this.

Have 1,485 Innocent Americans Been Investigated for Researching Pressure Cookers? -

It seems to have worked out okay for this apparently comfortable and apparently white family (though I am curious whether the FBI had investigated her husband’s business trips to Korea and China before they showed up).

But this was just one JTTF squad. And that JTTF told her husband that they conduct 100 such investigations a week.

But don’t worry. Keith Alexander and James Clapper assures you they’re not watching Americans’ communications.

Yes, go look at that picture in the Atlantic Wire article.  But note that it's not a photo from this incident, it's from the Boston lockdown after the bombings. But look at the kids.

The Guardian has just published an article by Michele Catalano too. It looks to be identical to the blog post that I included above.

My family's Google searching got us a visit from counterterrorism police
Officers showed up at our door suspecting we were terrorists because we looked up info on pressure cookers and backpacks
Michele Catalano also contributed at Boing Boing, a site well known for left activist writing.

People are already thinking of ways to hack people and send you to pages that get you swept up by a terrorism task force.  Probably unlikely, but knowing what we know about FBI entrapment... I don't know.
"CSRF is an attack which forces an end user to execute unwanted actions on a web application in which he/she is currently authenticated."

More Updates

This comes from Nada Bakos, ex-CIA:

Some comments from the Guardian article:

Welcome to a free society.
For my part, I once spent about 45 minutes at gunpoint at the side of the road because I drove a hired van down the Mall (too close to Buckingham Palace, apparently) and the counterterrorist police assumed I was up to no good. They openly admitted that if I'd been any slower in pulling over they had orders to shoot me dead at the wheel.
Jesus, they've got the capability to look at anything anywhere and this is the best they can do? And what part of the internet were they watching and checking
before the Boston bombers struck?
This insane and grossly incompetent level of surveillance seems to serve no purpose at all. What it is doing though is terrifying the entire population.
I think that's the entire point. It's like Foucault's "pan-opticon" - you can't tell if you're being watched or not, so you automatically self-regulate your behavior.
I'm sure that nobody in the writer's family will ever be able to Google something without having a little voice in their head saying, "Is this safe? Will this raise any red flags?"
Chilling read. Surveillance apologists can scream about "meta-data" all day long, but the fact is that there is someone out there who is looking at individual browsing histories, emails, web activity, etc.
Some comments from the Atlantic Wire article:
I'm reluctant to even comment here lest these turds decide to pay me a visit & shoot my dogs as a matter of standard operating procedure. When did we start living in a thought-police state? This is getting ridiculous.
They couldn't find the stinking Tsarnaev brothers even when Russia and the Saudis gave them their names....but citizens looking to buy cookware? Now they're all gung ho.
How does one obtain Canadian citizenship?

Even More Updates


Yes, The FBI Is Tracking American Google Searches

Maybe she's only one hop away from the neighbor of the cousin of Osama bin Laden's third wife, but she doesn't seem like a terrorist.
In case we needed more proof that the U.S. government is in fact reading the contents of American's online activity, this should do it. [...]

NSA at work? Writer says house raided after online browsing
Writer claims Joint Terrorist Task Force raided house based on online searches for backpacks and pressure cookers

Of course, there is no way to verify why Catalano’s home was selected for a raid — national security agencies are hardly free with such information. But based on questions posed by the government agents to her husband (she was not home at the time ), Catalano pieced together that a “confluence” of Internet searches — activity we now know to be tracked and hoarded on databases by the NSA — brought a SWAT team to her door. She had searched for pressure cookers, her husband had searched for back packs. Following the Boston bombings, otherwise innocuous activity took on a suspicious air to the algorithms daily sifting our almost every online move on behalf of the government.
Catalano’s story, as she frames it, appears to illustrate how Internet activity both banal and curious can add up to the seemingly criminal according to government algorithims. Her story too appears to highlight — through the lens of the personal — how very much our online selves are surveilled. Interestingly, Catalalono writes that the agents who raided her house said that that carry out such raids regularly [...]

Adam Gabbatt at the Guardian.
New York woman visited by police after researching pressure cookers online
Long Island resident said her web search history and 'trying to learn how to cook lentils' prompted a visit from authorities

Michele Catalano, who lives in Long Island, New York, said her web searches for pressure cookers, her husband's hunt for backpacks, and her "news junkie" son's craving for information on the Boston bombings had combined somewhere in the internet ether to create a "perfect storm of terrorism profiling".
It was at this point that the conversation took a delightfully culinary turn, with quinoa making an unlikely appearance in the FBI's inquiries:

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.
The joint terrorism task force did not press Catalano's husband on the dilemma facing liberals over whether quinoa consumption is ethically sound – many Bolivians can no longer afford their staple food now everyone in Brooklyn is eating it.

[Note: in a later update, the FBI said they were not involved in the search and would not discuss whether they had any other involvement.]

Techland at Time magazine.
You Are No Longer Free to Search on Google
Michele Catalano brings us a frightening story of how a series of Google searches led to a visit by local authorities.

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. The agents in this story said they perform about 100 of these visits every week.


UPDATE 3: There’s more to the story than Catalano let on. According to the Suffolk County police department (via TechCrunch), the suspicious Google searches were reported by an employer, and the searches were performed on the workplace computer of a “recently released employee.” (It’s not clear from the police’s statement who the employee was.) So while the terms “pressure cooker bomb” and “backpack” were indeed flagged as suspicious, this was a case of a company monitoring its employee’s web searches, not secret monitoring of things you search for in the privacy of your home. It’s an interesting story either way–something to think about if you’re Googling at work–but I do regret jumping on it before all the facts were in order. The rest of the original story continues below.

Investigators Search LI Home After Family Googles Pressure Cookers, Backpacks

Meanwhile, confusion reigns at the press offices for Nassau County and Suffolk County police. A press liaison for the Nassau County Police Department told us his phone's been ringing nonstop with inquiries. "I am trying to find out what's going on with this," he told me. "I was told that Nassau County police had absolutely no involvement in this whatsoever. I called the FBI field office in Melville and they knew nothing, the Joint Terrorism Task Force said they knew nothing. But a press rep for the FBI in NYC said Nassau County was involved, so I have to go up the chain to bigger people."

20 minutes later, another spokesperson for the Nassau County police department told me, "We contacted all our commands within the Nassau County Police Department. We did not visit this woman, and we do not know what police agency did visit her." The Suffolk County police department spokesperson said she was still trying to determine whether they were involved. The FBI press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Xeni at Boing Boing. (Catalano is a contributor there. They kicked the wrong hornet's nest messing with Xeni).
New York writer claims she was visited by joint terrorism task force for googling pressure cookers

What the hell, America? Periodic Boing Boing contributor Michelle Catalano claims she was internet-profiled and then "visited" at home by joint terrorism task force investigators who she says found her internet browsing history suspicious, not that anyone's been looking at the internet habits of innocent Americans recently, no, that's definitely not in the zeitgeist.

Michele Catalano is apparently being bombarded by idiots on Twitter and by the media, as if she hasn't been through enough!
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