Does Googling ‘Backpack’ and ‘Pressure Cooker’ Make You a Terrorism Suspect? [Updated]

By

Michele Catalano, a Long Island writer, told a post–Edward Snowden, post–Tsarnaev brothers story about the Orwellian security apparatus in this country today that raised more questions than answers. In her secondhand account on Medium, "six agents from the joint terrorism task force" visited her husband at home this week as a result of the wrong combination of standard, curious Google searches: "I had researched pressure cookers. My husband was looking for a backpack," she wrote. "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-year-old son, you click a lot of links when you read the myriad of stories."

There were questions from the agents, explained away easily, and then they left. "They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing," she said, but it left behind residual fear. "And not of the right things."

Law enforcement is less clear about what happened. The Guardian reported that the "task force" was actually the Nassau County police department, "working in conjunction with Suffolk County police department," according to an FBI spokesperson who denied any FBI involvement. But a detective from the Nassau County Police told the Atlantic Wire that his department was "not involved in any way." At the very least, there's some serious miscommunication between local agencies, or else some misdirection.

Beyond that, writer Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post wondered if the visit had anything to do with Google at all: "It's clear that they could come from information that is not Catalano's search history — say, an anonymous tip from a jumpy neighbor. (Maybe someone who noted this Facebook picture.)." And if it was Google, was it one of those NSA programs we've been hearing so much about? It's unlikely we'll ever know for sure, and Catalano, defensive at suggestions she embellished, isn't talking:

But the panicky finger-pointing and obfuscating all around serve as a pretty good approximation of life in America at the moment.

Update:  It was a jumpy employer, not a jumpy neighbor. The Suffolk County Police Department said in a 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.”

Catalano confirmed that version of events to TechCrunch.