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    You Are No Longer Free to Search on Google

    Michele Catalano brings us a frightening story of how a series of Google searches led to a visit by local authorities.
    By Jared Newman @OneJaredNewman Aug. 01, 2013


    Michele Catalano brings us a frightening story of how a series of Google searches led to a visit by the FBI local authorities (see update below):


    It was a confluence of magnificent proportions that led six agents from the joint terrorism task force to knock on my door Wednesday morning. 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.

    I don’t have much to add right now, though my sense is this is going to become a much bigger story. Or at least it should. Catalano has been published in BoingBoing, The Magazine and elsewhere, and is a former writer for Forbes, so her credibility isn’t in doubt.

    UPDATE: Catalano clarified that the task force agents were not FBI. Kashmir Hill cites the FBI as saying they were not involved, and the visit was a “local police matter.”

    For all we’ve heard about PRISM over the last couple of months, what we haven’t seen are clear examples of innocent people–those who say they have nothing to hide–having federal agents enter their homes on the basis of some Google searches. The agents in this story said they perform about 100 of these visits every week.

    Do me a favor, though, and watch this Ad Council commercial from 2002, put together in response to 9/11, and tell me this isn’t exactly what we were afraid of back then:

    http://youtu.be/mzj1Td7Vwt0  (Sorry, couldn't get the embed link to work here.)

    (The blog post by Michele Catalano below)


    pressure cookers, backpacks and quinoa, oh my!

    It was a confluence of magnificent proportions that led six agents from the joint terrorism task force to knock on my door Wednesday morning. 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.

    Most of it was innocent enough. I had researched pressure cookers. My husband was looking for a backpack. And maybe in another time those two things together would have seemed innocuous, but we are in “these times” now. And in these times, when things like the Boston bombing happen, you spend a lot of time on the internet reading about it and, if you are my exceedingly curious news junkie of a twenty-year-old son, you click a lot of links when you read the myriad of stories. You might just read a CNN piece about how bomb making instructions are readily available on the internet and you will in all probability, if you are that kid, click the link provided.

    Which might not raise any red flags. Because who wasn’t reading those stories? Who wasn’t clicking those links? But my son’s reading habits combined with my search for a pressure cooker and my husband’s search for a backpack set off an alarm of sorts at the joint terrorism task force headquarters.

    That’s how I imagine it played out, anyhow. Lots of bells and whistles and a crowd of task force workers huddled around a computer screen looking at our Google history.

    This was weeks ago. I don’t know what took them so long to get here. Maybe they were waiting for some other devious Google search to show up but “what the hell do I do with quinoa” and “Is A-Rod suspended yet” didn’t fit into the equation so they just moved in based on those older searches.

    I was at work when it happened. My husband called me as soon as it was over, almost laughing about it but I wasn’t joining in the laughter. His call left me shaken and anxious.

    What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, 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.

    “Are you [name redacted]?” one asked while glancing at a clipboard. He affirmed that was indeed him, and was asked if they could come in. Sure, he said.

    They asked 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.

    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.

    45 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.



    Today, paranoia is patriotic.  I am sure that this type of data gathering is going on in most major countries.  I'm not agreeing with it, but cyberspace is making us all an open book. 


    Today, paranoia is patriotic.  I am sure that this type of data gathering is going on in most major countries.  I'm not agreeing with it, but cyberspace is making us all an open book.

    I agree, rodv.  The world has changed, and data aggregators are everywhere. 1984 is here.  Proceed with caution.  :(

    Oh, and hey! There's more!


    5 other countries share NSA's ability to watch your every online move

    By Kevin Collier on August 01, 2013

    Leaked documents indicate that the National Security Agency's most invasive Internet surveillance program, XKeyscore, is in some way shared with at least five other countries.

    On Wednesday the Guardian published an NSA presentation on XKeyscore, provided by former contractor Edward Snowden, which describes the program as its "widest-reaching" Internet program. The NSA has acknowledged the existence of XKeyscore, and hasn't denied claims about its vast powers, which include the ability to track nearly any individual's Internet activity in real time and read their emails.

    The presentation, dated February 25, 2008, doesn't make specific reference to sharing its information with spy agencies in other nations, and the NSA didn't immediately respond to the Daily Dot's request for comment. But stamped at the top and bottom of each of those slides is the phrase: "REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL."

    This group of five countries does have a special significance. In a then-anonymous interview Snowden gave before leaving the U.S. with all his NSA documents, he made specific reference to the U.S., Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand as the "Five Eye Partners."

    "In some cases, the so-called Five Eye Partners go beyond what NSA itself does," Snowden said at the time.

    In another leaked document, obtained by Der Spiegel, the NSA defines Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand as "2nd party" nations, and says that "The NSA does NOT target its 2nd party partners, nor request that 2nd parties do anything that is inherently illegal for NSA to do."

    On July 8, the Sydney Morning-Herald reported that Australia has four different facilities dedicated in part to assisting in the XKeyscore program, though the extent of that program wasn't public at the time.

    Der Spiegel has also reported it has evidence that Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country's domestic intelligence agency, has access to XKeyscore, and also that both the BfV and NSA have used the program to spy on German citizens.




    I ironically graduated high schok in 1984 and we really dived into Orwell.  I am seeing that so much is coming true.  Criminals on TV as entertainment, we are at war one place today, another place tomorrow.  The inner circle of the two political parties are all one bigssocial club.  The big bankers donated to Obama in 2008 and then to Romney in 20012.  Security cameras, red light cameras and NSA are only the tip of the iceberg.  According to the political application of game theory, future political events can be predicted if you have enough data to study.  You can use algorithms to predict future reaction to the events of today.  Maybe all this data collection is not about terrorism, but about controlling future events.



    I dropped Google for some time and used Scroogle when it was still up and running. Now I switched over to DuckDuckGo. Google has pushed too far into society and invading our privacy, especially with the latest Google glasses.



    Never heard of duck duck go



    Yes I got rid of google chrome because of these concerns and switched to Firefox and installed the Ghostery, Noscript, and the google/facebook/twitter Disconnect add-ons. Likewise I don't have a twitter account, and plan on perhaps getting rid of my FB.

    Strangely enough Firefox does not allow you to change the default search engine  when you type plain text in the search bar (even though Chrome does). Here is a tutorial to change it to the duckduckgo engine.




    Update to story below – a tip from a former employer, NOT government metadata analysis, caused home search. This new information changes the original story significantly. Common sense rule: Do not do personal business on your employer-owned computer! (This policy was effect in at the various offices I worked at over the past 15 years and has become standard policy in most American workplaces. Using an employer computer for personal business can even be cause for termination from the job.) Who can believe the media anymore?  :-


    Employer Tipped Off Police in Pressure Cooker/Backpack Gate — NOT Google

    In what might be Medium‘s first widespread Twitter moment, music writer Michele Catalano used the platform to blog details of an unexpected visit to her home yesterday, from six men she identifies as members of the “joint terrorism task force.”

    Catalano asserts that the visit was likely prompted by her husband searching for the term “backpacks” in close conjunction with her searching for the term “pressure cookers” and her son reading the news. Or something.

    Turns out the visit was prompted by the searches, but not in the way most speculation asserted – by a law enforcement-initiated, NSA-enabled dragnet of the couple’s web history. It turns out either Catalano or her husband were conducting these searches from a work computer. And that employer, “a Bay Shore based computer company,” called the police on their former employee.

    The Suffolk County Police Department has just released the following information related to the case:

        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.

        Any further inquiries regarding this matter should be directed to the Suffolk County Police Department

    From what we can glean from LinkedIn, the computer company referenced above may be Speco Technologies, where Catalano’s husband Todd Pinnell worked as a product manager until last April (we’ve called Speco to confirm). This should be a teachable moment to anyone who thinks that their work computers are somehow not being tracked.

    While Google’s, or PRISM‘s, tracking of  Internet activity wasn’t behind this incident, the fact is that Google does comply with law enforcement to hand over user data in general. Can the FBI or local police provide a search warrant to Google, and would Google possibly comply with such a request? Yes, and the company publishes all requests in a report every six months. This is nothing new.

    And wider requests, like for the months of search history that would be needed to figure out the pressure cooker and backpack coincidence, may result in a push to narrow the scope of the investigation from Google’s end.

    But, an industry source confirms, it doesn’t work the other way around: i.e. Google isn’t flagging searches for “pressure cooker” + “backpacks” for the cops.

    It’d be crazy if it did though.

    Update: Catalano confirms this interpretation of the story. For those of you wondering where we got the press release: I called the Suffolk County Police Department for a statement, and they emailed it to me.

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