Viral story of Google searches prompting a raid from the authorities is not exactly true
Fresh off new Snowden-leaked revelations that the NSA has the ability to record and monitor all Internet activity, came this curious tale from writer Michele Catalano where she claimed that a chance combination of innocuous Internet searches prompted a visit from a “joint terrorism taskforce.” You may have seen it tweeted about or shared on Facebook, or even seen Ms. Catalano's fuller re-telling in The Guardian. Turns out it wasn’t exactly true.
In the original telling of the story, Catalano describes as “a confluence of magnificent proportions,” as six officers from a non-specifically named agency came to her home for a casual visit on Wednesday morning. Catalano believed the search was prompted by a weeks-old combination of Google searches she performed for “pressure cookers” and a separate search her husband performed for “backpack” in possible conjunction with her 20-year-old son’s following of links for online bomb instructions mentioned in a CNN.com article.
Catalano was not home during the 9 AM visit, but her husband and son were. The officers performed a cursory casual search around the house and asked a few questions such as “Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb?”
The officers then left and cleared the household of any suspicions. Still a crazy story, right? Well, perhaps it wasn't quite as crazy as it might seem.
It was the searches! Sort of...
While some outlets were labeling this an FBI action based on Google searches, Catalano never made that claim. I reached out to the FBI’s New York Office for comment on the matter yesterday and was informed that they had no part in the investigation and that it was a joint action between the Nassau and Suffolk county police departments based on information from Suffolk County Intelligence. After we reached out, the Nassau County Police Department denied any involvement, stating the FBI was misinformed by the local Melville field office. However, late last night the Suffolk County PD released the following statement:
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.
According to TechCrunch, the computer company in question may have been the former employer of Ms. Catalano’s husband.
In response to the changing news, Catalano updated her original piece on Medium with the following clarification:
We found out through the Suffolk Police Department that the searches involved also things my husband looked up at his old job. We were not made aware of this at the time of questioning and were led to believe it was solely from searches from within our house.
I did not lie or make it up. I wrote the piece with the information that was given. What was withheld from us obviously could not be a part of a story I wrote based on what happened yesterday.
The piece I wrote was the story as we knew it with the information we were told. None of it was fabricated. If you know me, you know I would never do that.
If it was misleading, just know that my intention was the truth. And that was what I knew as the truth until about ten minutes ago. That there were other circumstances involved was something we all were unaware of.
So, it appears that while the investigation may have indeed been prompted by Internet queries of some type, they were not prompted by any of the Snowden-esque monitoring programs that have recently come to light. The vast firehouse of data allegedly being collected under Xkeyscore very likely can't be parsed in close enough to real-time to prompt an investigation like this anyway, unless (perhaps) an individual was already under scrutiny.
Before Snowden’s leaks, a former FBI agent revealed how some unspecified technology could be used in the Boston Bombing investigation to collect data—after the fact. The entirety of the monitoring infrastructure is likely more akin to an all-encompassing super DVR rather than an early alert system.