Michele Catalano convulsed the entire Interweb yesterday over her admission that Googling “pressure cooker” and “backpack” at different times on her own computer had brought a police agency to her house in a search. The story had numerous holes. But it grew legs because, in a sad, sad way, we all knew a story like this was coming: had the realities of the American surveillance state finally shown themselves?
In a post on her blog on Medium, Catalano claims that “six agents from the joint terrorism task force” came to her house while her husband–not Catalano herself–was home and searched the house. She assumes it has something to do with web searches of “pressure cooker” and “backpack,” though it remained an assumption as the news cycle hummed along.
Catalano’s husband realized something was wrong when there “three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.”
Officers entered her family home and proceeded to search it. Catalano describes the search as “cursory,” as if perfunctory. “They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing.”
They start asking pretty pointed questions like: “Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb?” Satisfied that Catalano nor anyone in her family were bombers, the officers left.
Immediately watchers started scratching their heads. What agency did this? Why was Catalano refusing to comment to news outlets about the search? Catalano was not herself there; could this all be fabricated, some twisted way of capitalizing on the still-raw nerve of the Boston Bombing?
The Voice, as well as every other news outlet in the Tri-State area, contacted both the Suffolk County and Nassau County police departments. Nassau County out and out denied involvement, while Suffolk County gave a more noncommittal answer, saying they were not the lead investigating agency on the case, but if they were they would not comment on the search of Catalano’s house.
Trolls began laying into Catalano, accusing her of making the whole thing up. The abuse was bad enough that she pulled away from Twitter.
I’ll say it once: I didn’t make it up. Shutting down twitter for the day. Thanks to those defending my integrity.
— Michele Catalano (@inthefade) August 1, 2013
Ultimately it emerged that the search was a result of the Googling taking place on Catalano’s husband’s old workplace computer. His former bosses were nervous about “pressure cooker” and “backpack” popping up on the same workstation, so they contacted the police. The employers themselves reported the use; this wasn’t part of some massive NSA keyword sweep.
Finally, Suffolk County owned up to being the investigating agency, saying in a statement
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.”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or in a basement with bad wifi, you probably already know that this kind of surveillance is well within the NSA and other government agencies’ capabilities.
So it should not come as a surprise that a man’s work computer was excavated for fear of a terrorist attack. Jarring, maybe, but not surprising.
The actual fucked up part of this is Suffolk County PD’s dissembling over the existence of the investigation. When they skirted reporters yesterday, including myself, they were out-and-out lying about having involvement in this case.
Since it’s clear now that they were the lead agency, the comment they provided to the Voice was knowingly false. Do our government agencies, even our local ones, have the latitude to peddle untruths when it comes to surveillance programs? Is this what it’s going to be like now?
Send your story tips to the author, Raillan Brooks.