Internet Searches the Cause for Family’s Counterterrorism Raid

PRISM at work


Millions of cooks (this one included) take to Google for the perfect recipe. Sometimes, depending on the type of pot used, you may search ingredients based on its ability. Michele Catalano loves to cook for her family and she owns a pressure cooker. Add that to her husband’s recent search of backpacks for use, and her son was learning more about the Boston bombing through the World Wide Web and social media. This search engine trifecta earned the Catalano’s a visit from the New York City counterterrorism police.

Catalano issued her story in an interesting release. She states the combined searches triggered something at the joint terrorism task force headquarters. While her husband laughed after the incident, Catalano remained shaken and for good reason. Catalano is a freelance writer and shared her  story on her blog, which is linked as source 1 at the end of the article. She shares the events:

What happened was this: At about 9am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw 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.

Six gentleman in casual clothes emerged from the vehicles and spread out as they walked toward the house, two toward the backyard on one side, two on the other side, two toward the front door.

A million things went through my husband’s head. None of which were right. He walked outside and the men greeted him by flashing badges. He could see they all had guns holstered in their waistbands.

The undercover task force agents asked to come inside and Catalano’s husband agreed. Once inside, the plainclothes police inquired if, “they could search the house, though it turned out to be just a cursory search. They walked around the living room, studied the books on the shelf (nope, no bomb making books, no Anarchist Cookbook), looked at all our pictures, glanced into our bedroom, pet our dogs. They asked if they could go in my son’s bedroom but when my husband said my son was sleeping in there, they let it be.” Not yet, had the police described their visit attributing to Google searches. Her husband was nervous and the search draws millions of questions and its relation to intimidation and Constitutional review.

Catalano continues the story:

Meanwhile, they 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.

They searched the backyard. They walked around the garage, as much as one could walk around a garage strewn with yardworking equipment and various junk. They went back in the house and asked more questions. 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.

By this point they had realized they were not dealing with terrorists. They asked my husband about his work, his visits to South Korea and China. The tone was conversational.

They never asked to see the computers on which the searches were done. They never opened a drawer or a cabinet. They left two rooms unsearched. I guess we didn’t fit the exact profile they were looking for so they were just going through the motions.

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.

Forty-five minutes later, they shook my husband’s hand and left. That’s when he called me and relayed the story. That’s when I felt a sense of creeping dread take over. What else had I looked up? What kind of searches did I do that alone seemed innocent enough but put together could make someone suspicious? Were they judging me because my house was a mess (oh my God, the joint terrorism task force was in my house and there were dirty dishes in my sink!). Mostly I felt a great sense of anxiety. This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do.

All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online.

I’m scared. And not of the right things.

Of course, the police, once the story became viral advised this was due to a “tip-off” and not monitoring of citizens computers. This statement makes those same citizens scratch their head. Topics of conversation rarely surround the aspect of “Hey Donna! Guess what we searched on Google today!” The county police commissioner released a statement, that well, speaks of monitoring in so many words:

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’.

The former employee was her husband from his old company, during a time when millions of individuals were looking up the Boston bombing event and the tragic timeline leading up to that event. Of course the company nor police advise of a timeline of search from the work computer and failed to advise if it was log in specific.

Perhaps, further review should point no further than to law CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act) – which basically demonstrates the Fourth Amendment has no bearing for citizens when online. David Gewirtz, a CBS Interactive Lecturer had shared his disdain for CISPA, stating, “Let me be clear: there is a terrible need for better cybersecurity, but a bill like this isn’t going to protect America. Rather, it will hurt Americans. These bills (CISPA, SOPA, PIPA, and the like), will continue to crop up like weeds.”

Overall, the Catalano’s are no longer under review (so say the cops) but in New York, Michele Catalano’s life view has forever changed. She feels watched, over Google searches. This places independent Americans on red-alert as a combined perfect storm of searches can just land the counterterrorism police at your door.

Angelina Bouc


1-M. Catalano Blog

2-D. Gewirtz Blog