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: