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No, the FBI isn't snooping on all New York Google users

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Reuters

(Read caption) Are they coming for us?

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A potentially explosive online claim about US government snooping into the email habits of Americans has fizzled.

I wrote earlier today about the strange claim of a Suffolk County New York woman who said that the FBI had visited her house based on her, her husband's, and her 20-year-old son's online browsing habits using Google. If her claim was true, it could have had a major impact on the US debate about internet surveillance touched off by the leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The Suffolk County police says the reason they dispatched men to her home was far more prosaic. In an emailed statement, the police department says:

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"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.

Any further inquiries regarding this matter should be directed to the Suffolk County Police Department."

In other words, a business worried about a recently fired employee going postal called the cops and they checked it out and the police handled it with relatively kid gloves. Did the former employer over-react? Almost certainly. But you can't chalk this one up as evidence of an internet surveillance state gone wrong.

It's worth remembering that people call in worries to the police all the time and they check it out. The original story tracks reasonably with this explanation from the local police and I'm inclined to believe them. Perhaps Michele Catalano, the originator of this story, will agree.

To be sure, claims are made about people all the time. When Russian intelligence reported to the FBI that they should look into the Tsarneav brothers who later carried out the Boston Marathon attack, they had a sniff. They didn't find anything and left them alone. In hindsight a tragic mistake, but there wasn't any evidence or reason to haul them in. They erred on the side of leaving people who had carried out no crime (as yet) alone.

Such was the case with Ms. Catalano and her family. In this case, clearly, there was nothing to worry about. But neither is there evidence about the FBI running a vast intelligence operation against everyone who uses the internet in the US.

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Let's see how fast it takes this end of the story to run around the internet.


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