You Are No Longer Free to Search on Google (Update: Not Quite True)

Michele Catalano brings us a frightening story of how a series of Google searches led to a visit by local authorities.

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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.”

UPDATE 2: More from The Guardian, citing an FBI spokeswoman as saying that Nassau County and Suffolk County police were both involved. Nassau County police denied involvement, however. Suffolk County police referred questions back to the FBI.

UPDATE 3: There’s more to the story than Catalano let on. According to the Suffolk County police department (via TechCrunch), the suspicious Google searches were reported by an employer, and the searches were performed on the workplace computer of a “recently released employee.” (It’s not clear from the police’s statement who the employee was.) So while the terms “pressure cooker bomb” and “backpack” were indeed flagged as suspicious, this was a case of a company monitoring its employee’s web searches, not secret monitoring of things you search for in the privacy of your home. It’s an interesting story either way–something to think about if you’re Googling at work–but I do regret jumping on it before all the facts were in order. The rest of the original story continues below.

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:

24 comments
CaridadJ.Hilaire
CaridadJ.Hilaire

We are at war, and we seem to forget it.  It is a totally different type of war, and the government has to take actions .  We have short term, and selective memory.  Did we already forget about Boston?  Our sisters, and brothers got killed on our soil.  They lost limbs, and some are traumatized for life.  Our adversaries are working 24 hours, and 7 days to take this country down.   

JasonFournier
JasonFournier

Update 4: Dude, just delete this article and quit trying to steal hit counts with your fraudulent story.

Ajedi32
Ajedi32

@Update 3  And... there you have it. Nothing to see here.

RhoninDk
RhoninDk

Unless the business is involved with scenarios or terrorist type items, why would a business IT structure even be monitoring for these?   This smacks more like a CYA than an actual business complaint.

DanBruce
DanBruce

Other than losing a few minutes of your time, how did the visit of the FBI agents harm you or your family? You don't say they abused you in any way, or threatened you, or whatever. All they did was come to check to see if you were involved in anything that might be considered preparing for a terrorist act against Americans. I assume you weren't and that you easily explained your reasons for your Google searches and that they left not finding anything to be concerned about. But, it isn't as if no one in the country is out to harm Americans here at home, so someone has to be guarding the gates. Don't you wish the FBI had paid a similar visit to Mohammed Atta and friends before 9/11? Plus, it gave you something to be indignant about, with the potential of being something that you can soapbox about for days. Instead of being indignant, you should have invited them in for coffee and thanked them for doing the footwork necessary to keep you and your family safe in this wacky, dangerous world.

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@JasonFournier If I was trying to "steal hit counts," the thing to do would be to write a second story, and put a link to that story in this one. Deleting a post is often construed as trying to make an embarrassing thing go away; I think it's better to own up to it.

thetitaniumdragon
thetitaniumdragon

@DanBruce  The problem is that you are exactly who terrorists love, because you are afraid. If people like you didn't exist, 9/11 wouldn't have happened because it would have been useless. Terrorism relies on fear - the fear of people like you - to function. Without it, it wouldn't do anything at all, and all you'd have are spree killers and similar who randomly act out. Terrorism is political, and you are the one who votes to put terrorists in power.

I was never afraid after 9/11. 9/11 didn't scare me because I know, unlike you, that terrorists have to get very, very lucky to pull something off like that. The reason there hasn't been another 9/11 is because there wasn't a 9/11 before it either. 9/11 is the high point of terrorism. They got as lucky as they can really hope to be, but they could always get luckier.

Now, this is not a case where the government went too far - an employer having a fired employee make a search about bombs on a work computer IS reasonable cause for concern, and if I was the employer, I'd phone the police as well. However, I am not at all for monitoring every single search on every single computer. That is wrong, and moreover, illegal.

Now, you claim to protect your family, but you have in fact put them in danger. You see, you claim that sacrificing liberty increases security. There is no sign of this; China has tons of internal problems, so does Russia. If liberty = insecurity, then third world dictatorships must be terribly secure places. If you have been to places like Iraq and Afganistan, you know just what a joke that is.

Liberty keeps us safe.

"But," you say, "I have nothing to hide." To which I reply: Of course you do. You are afraid. You are a perfect target for blackmail. Anything you are less than proud of is a weakness, a weakness I or others could potentially exploit.

Say someone at the NSA didn't like some political candidate. They go through their google searches and emails, pick out things which are potentially embarassing, and threaten to blackmail them, or leak them to the press or to their political opponents. Bam, whoever is at the NSA could control who could be elected. How could you ever cut their funding if they can reveal all your darkest secrets? What could they make you do by threatening to reveal your wife's secrets, or your kids'?

You've already shown your willingness to give into fear, so I can't trust you with anything at all. You might as well be a terrorist, because you can be controlled by them.

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@DanBruce Although I disagree with your position for a number of reasons, I'm assuming you can't be swayed on this matter.

So here are some questions instead: Where do you draw the line, if at all, between "footwork necessary" and an unnecessary invasion of privacy? Is your view that the government should be able to monitor all of our digital activity, including web searches, e-mail and text messages, without a warrant? What about non-digital activity? Should the government be aware of everyone's whereabouts at all times? How about reading our physical mail and listening to all of our phone calls? How about periodically sending police officers door to door, at any time they see fit?

And as long as the government is monitoring things, what do you view as an acceptable threshold for sending police out to check on you? You're okay with web searches for backpacks and pressure cookers. What if someone searches for "pipe bombs," or "AK-47s," or "box cutters?" What about just "guns," or "knives," or just "Al-Qaida?" How many searches of forbidden keywords must a person perform before they are flagged as suspicious, subject to random visits by police and hold-ups when they attempt to fly? Let's just make the assumption that there's no other way to stop a terrorist attack. How much privacy would you give up?

DanBruce
DanBruce

@newmanjb @DanBruce How much privacy would I give up? Under ideal circumstances, none. In today's world, enough to preserve the lives of my loved ones (I already offered to give my own life for the security of my fellow citizens when I served in combat in the military, but I don't want to risk their lives).

DanBruce
DanBruce

@PaulDirks @DanBruce One answer to your question is, that by not having due vigilence by law enforcement (or a sitting president), something like 9/11 could go wrong.

CrystalPowell
CrystalPowell

@newmanjb @DanBruce privacy is an illusion it has been since the first bank account,  with every new tool, telegram, telegraph, telephone, pager, fax and computer, data is collected and checked. The 4th amendment never applied to everyone, and in fact never applied to anyone.  once you get past your delusional indignation and look at our world for what it is now, and what it has always been you have to admit that privacy is a joke.  

DanBruce
DanBruce

@newmanjb @DanBruce I think it depends on the circumstances. That's why I am satisfied electing people to set the limits for me, working within our system of checks and balances, since they can take the current security situation into account, having access to classified information that cannot be given to the public without dimninishing our security. 

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@DanBruce @newmanjb Ah, but how much is enough? I'm inclined to think that absolute security is impossible, and that giving up more of our privacy in pursuit of absolute security is foolish. At some point you have to draw a line. Where do you?

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@thedude1970 It's not a violation of the 4th amendment if the homeowner allows the authorities into his home, which seems to be the case here. Nothing illegal about the cops showing up and saying "mind if we take a look inside?" Up to the homeowner to say "not without a warrant."

thedude1970
thedude1970

Assuming this story is accurate and no details are missing, searching her house was a violation of the 4th Amendment. Despite it not being 1789, I do not recall the Constitution stating that after 200 years, certain Amendments no longer apply.

Furthermore, changing times require changing policies, I agree. However, changing policies do not allow for trampling the founding document of this country. You do realize why terrorists want us killed? It has absolutely nothing to do with "our freedoms". If this was the case, terrorists would be attacking Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Australia, countries that all have more individual liberty than the U.S. They attack us because we meddle in the Middle East and Israel. We place puppet leaders, dispose of dictators, place new dictators, drone civilians, kill women and children, all in the name of "freedom and democracy". Stop meddling in their affairs and the attacks would stop. 

It is very obvious, but have no fear. I care not if you care because I have already lost hope in America, the government, and it's feeble-minded proleteriat. Soon enough I will have my EU citizenship and will live in a much more democratic and free society in Switzerland or the like.

DanBruce
DanBruce

@thedude1970 I would agree with you totally, but I don't live in 1789, and thus realze that a lot of precedent to cope with current reality has been lawfully and Constitutionally set in place.

thedude1970
thedude1970

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

-4th Amendment.

Now get back in formation of towing our Stasi government line.

DanBruce
DanBruce

@PaulDirks @DanBruce The success of terrorism is when the terrorists are ignored in order to uphold some utopian idea of privacy that is not possible in a crowded and dangerous world, allowing them to blend into society withou detection until they act. The case stated by the author of this article was merely an inconvenience for a few moments, he was not denied Constitutional rights. There is a difference between being prudent and being fearful.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

@DanBruce @PaulDirks The object of terrorism is to make people fearful beyond the terrorist's actual ability to cause harm. It would seem that in your case, they have succeeded.