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Is the FBI snooping on our Google searches?

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Clay Bennett/The Christian Science Monitor

(Read caption) A Google search screen is depicted, but in place of the traditional ENTER icon, there is a button that reads: 'This will go in your file.'

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Update: Ms. Catalano's home was visited by the Suffolk Country police after a former employer of one member of the household called the police with concerns someone at the home might be interested in making a bomb.

A potential bombshell has been dropped into the roiling debate about privacy and government snooping that's been unleashed by the leaks of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden: A New York area writer published a piece today saying that her home was visited by members of the "joint terrorism task force" after she and her husband searched for "pressure cookers" and "backpacks" on Google and her son may have searched for links on how to make a bomb. 

Michele Catalano's original piece is frustratingly vague, omitting the name of her husband who she said met with the agents, where she lives, and when exactly the visit took place (an earlier version of this story said she wrote the visit happened "weeks ago;" this was a misreading. It appears that the internet searches she references happened "weeks ago." ) But it is bound to light up the Internet and the national conversation if her central assertion proves true: "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." 

What seems clear is that her home was paid a visit. The Guardian reports that it spoke to an FBI spokesman who said that Ms. Catalano's home was "visited by Nassau County police... working in conjunction with Suffolk County police." Those are two Long Island counties close to New York City. A call to the FBI's New York city field office was not immediately returned. A Suffolk County police spokeswoman said she'd check with a superior and get back to me. Catalano said on her Twitter feed after publishing the story that "I'm not giving interviews."

What isn't clear is why her home was subject to police (and given the speed with which the FBI confirmed there was a visit, the Bureau) interest. In Catalano's account three black SUVs arrived at her home at 9 a.m, while she was at work and her husband was home with their 20-year-old still sleeping son, with one of the SUVs blocking his car in the driveway. Six men in "casual clothes" with sidearms then fanned out around the house, and two came to the door, asking if they could come in and search the place. Her husband apparently said yes.

There are some odd details in her story. For instance she says that the officers "mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week." If by that they meant the team of six guys in the New York area, that's 20 visits a day assuming a five-day work week and allowing just 30 minutes per visit and travel between visit assuming a 10 hour working day. Perhaps it involves additional teams and in a broader area than where she lives? She doesn't say, or seem to know. But that's a lot of mysterious visits from men with badges and guns not to be making it into the press more often.

As they looked around "they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live," she summarizes her unnamed husband's account. "Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker... Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb? My husband, ever the oppositional kind, asked them if they themselves weren’t curious as to how a pressure cooker bomb works, if they ever looked it up. Two of them admitted they did."

The question about looking up a pressure cooker bomb is the strongest bit of evidence that they were snooping on the Catalano family's online habits. But she doesn't quote the men – who the FBI told the Guardian were Suffolk County police – saying they'd arrived because of Internet searches. That's her supposition.

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Could it be true? I've been doing a bit of research on Mr. Snowden's claims, which have mostly been filtered through Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, in recent weeks. The position of the US government and former intelligence analysts I've talked to is that US citizens aren't spied on via the Internet without warrants and that the notion that the government is trawling through vast databases at random is fanciful.

The Catalano piece certainly wants to imply that that's precisely what happened. And while I'm skeptical – we simply don't know what we don't know. It's a safe bet that her piece is going to be seized upon as "evidence" that the US is doing precisely what it claims it hasn't been doing. 

Could there have been some other reason that the family home was under suspicion? All things are possible, but there's no evidence either way. She writes that "they asked my husband about his work, his visits to South Korea and China."  At any rate, after a cursory look around, the men left.

There are of course all sorts of potential invasions of privacy that are different from online snooping, and New York area police have been unfortunate pioneers in this field since Sept. 11 2001. The NYPD, for instance, has extended its own surveillance of Muslims into New Jersey and north into New England in the past decade.

In one case in 2008, New York dispatched an undercover officer with the Muslim Students Association from City College on a whitewater rafting trip in Buffalo, during which he recorded all their names and the frequency with which they prayed. The NYPD has also put a range of businesses under surveillance over the years, from kosher delis to hair salons.

I suspect there's more to this story than the mere search habits of Catalano, her husband, and her son. But if that is the only reason they were visited, this story will have legs. Great long ones.


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