Woman Claims Harmless Googling Brought FBI to the Door
Did Googling for a pressure cooker like this one bring the FBI to Michele Catalano's door?
CREDIT: John Kasawa
Updated: The Suffolk County Police Station has made a statement that seems to suggest they were the ones who visited the Catalano home, and also offers a bit more explanation of how their unfortunate Google search history attracted attention:
"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 [assumed to be Catalano's husband]. 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.'"
According to freelance writer and Long Island resident Michele Catalano, simply searching for "pressure cooker," "backpack," and clicking through links about the Boston Marathon bombs in separate internet sessions was enough to bring the FBI to her home.
Apparently, a few weeks ago Catalano had been looking for a better way to make quinoa and Googled "pressure cooker." Around the same time, her husband went online shopping for backpacks. And her twenty-year-old son, whom she described as a "news junkie," read an article about the Boston Marathon bombings and clicked through to a link about how to make the type of bombs used in the attack.
According to Catalano, on July 31 six agents which she described alternately as "FBI" and a "joint terrorism task force" arrived at the Catalano family home. Catalano was at work. Her husband, who happened to be home that day, let them in. In a post on the blogging platform Medium, Catalano described how, according to her husband, a few of the six FBI agents searched the house while the others questioned him:
"Do you have any bombs, they asked. 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."
Then the agents asked if Catalano's husband had ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb. He retorted by asking who hadn't. "Two of them admitted they did," Catalano wrote.
Catalano's story has yet to be confirmed; FBI spokesperson Kelly Langmesser told The Guardian that the agents were police officers from Nassau County and Suffolk County. However, the Nassau County police department denied involvement, and the Suffolk County police department referred the Guardian's inquiries back to the FBI.
Much of what happened to the Catalanos remains a mystery. But if Michele Catalano's assessment is true, it begs quite a lot of questions. What brought the authorities to the Catalano family's doors? If it was their search history, how did the authorities intercept it? The U.S. government is not supposed to surveil the electronic data of U.S. citizens. The technology to do so exists, namely in XKeyScore and PRISM, but there's no evidence that these programs were ever used illegally.
A few years ago — months ago, even — searching about backpacks and pressure cookers would seem random, harmless. But the bombs used in the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013 were home-made out of pressure cookers. The alleged bombers carried them in backpacks to the scene of the attack.
Did Google flag the now-ominous collection of searches and report it to the authorities? Or maybe it was the Catalano family's Internet provider?
According to Catalano, the agents' visit seemed to be perfunctory; she notes that they didn't examine the computers on which the searches had been made, and they left two rooms unsearched.
One of the agents told Catalano's husband that they perform such searches around 100 times a week, and that 99 of them turn up nothing.
The agents only spent about 45 minutes in the Catalanos' home, but it was enough to leave Michele Catalano deeply shaken.
"I felt a sense of creeping dread take over," she wrote. "What else had I looked up? What kind of searches did I do that alone seemed innocent enough but put together could make someone suspicious?"