A journalist named Michele Catalano touched off a minor firestorm of paranoia and outrage on August 1 when she wrote about being visited by three truckloads of plainclothes police at her house, a surprise inspection that appeared to have been triggered by some Google searches that she and her husband had performed on the topic of pressure cookers. The visit later turned out to be based on a report from her husband’s employer rather than NSA-level data mining, but it still highlighted one of the most pernicious aspects of the government’s secret surveillance program — namely, that so little is known about it that almost anything seems possible, no matter how outlandish.
In her original post — which has since been updated after a statement was released by the local police in Suffolk County, which covers most of Long Island in New York — Catalano described how six armed officers in plainclothes showed up at her house in three black SUVs (one of which they parked in such a way so as to block her husband’s car in), and began searching the house and questioning her husband about whether he had ever searched for information on pressure cookers, or how to make a pressure-cooker bomb.
Someone is watching you, but who is it?
Catalano went on to say that the only possible explanation for this sudden interest in her husband and his search activity — by what she originally assumed was the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which involves the FBI — seemed to be the fact that they were looking on Google for information on pressure cookers and had also been researching backpacks, along with some other searches that might have looked suspicious. As she put it:
“Little did we know our seemingly innocent, if curious to a fault, Googling of certain things was creating a perfect storm of terrorism profiling. Because somewhere out there, someone was watching. Someone whose job it is to piece together the things people do on the internet raised the red flag when they saw our search history.”
Almost as soon as Catalano’s report was published on Medium, and subsequently republished at The Guardian, skeptics started questioning whether the search and questioning of her husband was actually triggered by web searches for terms like “pressure cooker.” Declan McCullagh, who writes about security issues for CNET, said that he suspected it was a report from a suspicious neighbor, or possibly that authorities had seen a Facebook post from Catalano that included a picture of some large explosives (which were actually fireworks that said “explosive”).
As I argued to McCulloch before the police statement was released — and as others, such as former Threat Level blogger Ryan Singel, also argued — trying to justify the search and questioning of a seemingly innocuous individual by six plainclothes officers because they posted a photo of fireworks on Facebook around the 4th of July doesn’t seem much better than the FBI tracking a person’s Google searches for references to pressure cookers. The only possible bright spot in that scenario is that Facebook posts are nominally public.
Secrecy breeds fear and mistrust
Still, the whole episode brings up what for me is one of the most pernicious aspects of the widespread NSA surveillance program that The Guardian and other media outlets have been reporting on for the past couple of months: namely, that we have no real idea what the NSA and FBI and other security agencies are doing when it comes to monitoring our online activity — and that creates a loss of trust and a kind of free-floating anxiety that makes Catalano’s post seem completely understandable, even though it turned out to be wrong.
Ever since the Guardian and Washington Post first mentioned the NSA program called PRISM, based on leaked documents from former CIA staffer Edward Snowden, there has been a yawning gap between what those documents and stories allege is happening — that is, the interception and monitoring of phone calls, email, web searches and chats, many of them in real time, with the co-operation of companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook — and the official account of what such agencies are doing.
So for example, multiple reports in the Guardian and Post — as well as the New York Times — describe how the FBI runs equipment on the premises of Google, Facebook and other companies, and how operatives for a number of agencies can query the databases of those providers for keywords and other terms, in some cases without a warrant.
Paranoia might be a rational response
The companies who are allegedly involved in this program have denied, strenuously and repeatedly, that they are engaged in any such co-operation whatsoever — and senior members of the security establishment have also denied that such data collection occurs. And yet there is powerful evidence that at least some of those statements have been less than truthful, which probably isn’t surprising given the fact that the program is top secret.
Is it any wonder that people like Michele Catalano assume that someone might be looking at their Google searches and then notifying the police to search their house? (As it turned out, someone was doing exactly that, but it was an employer rather than the NSA). In the context of what we have learned — or at least what we appear to have learned — about the government’s widespread and possibly even illegal use of surveillance tools, her assumption doesn’t seem outlandish at all. If anything, it seems downright rational.
And that might be the biggest drawback of such spy programs, particularly when they seem so broad and all-encompassing — namely, that they make the inevitable loss of trust and almost paranoid levels of suspicion they trigger seem almost normal. Is that the kind of world we want to live in?