UPDATE 8:00 pm ET — In response to writer Michele Catalano’s article on her encounter with law enforcement officials, New York police released the following statement [emphasis added]:
As a result of numerous media inquiries, received today by the Suffolk County Police Department regarding an internet blog posting, the following statement has been made available.
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.
Catalano’s original post makes no mention of the searched term “pressure cooker bomb” or the Bay Shore company computer.
Professional writer Michele Catalano searched online Tuesday for information on pressure cookers while (at around the same time) her husband was Googling backpacks.
The next morning, she claims they got a visit from a joint terrorism task force.
“The composition of such task forces depend on the region of the country,” Philip Bump writes in The Atlantic, “but, as we outlined after the Boston bombings, include a variety of federal agencies. Among them: the FBI and Homeland Security.”
Catalano describes the scene:
[T]hey 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. 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. …
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.
Obviously, this raises a serious question: how did the feds know what Catalano and her husband were looking for online?
Remember, since the beginning of the NSA scandal, the U.S. government has fiercely denied claims that they collect data on American citizens.
The U.S. government is not “allowed to spy on Americans — although there are exceptions of which it takes advantage,” the Atlantic notes. “Its PRISM program, under which it collects internet content, does not include information from Americans unless those Americans are connected to terror suspects by no more than two other people.”
So how did the so-called joint terrorism task force know about Catalano?
“It’s possible that one of the two of them is tangentially linked to a foreign terror suspect, allowing the government to review their internet activity,” the report continues.
“After all, that ‘no more than two other people’ ends up covering millions of people. Or perhaps the NSA, as part of its routine collection of as much internet traffic as it can, automatically flags things like Google searches for ‘pressure cooker’ and ‘backpack’ and passes on anything it finds to the FBI,” it adds.
Of course, any number of possible factors could have triggered the fed’s interest in the Catalano’s – and that’s the scariest part of her account:
They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing. I don’t know what happens on the other 1% of visits and I’m not sure I want to know what my neighbors are up to.
If these reports are accurate, it means that roughly 100 times per-week a group of armed men visit U.S. citizens at their homes to search their property for reasons that may include their online searches.
That’s a little unnerving.
Click here to read the full Atlantic report.
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Featured image Getty Images. This post and its headline have been updated.