On Thursday, there was an important cautionary tale about trust and paranoia in an age of sweeping Internet surveillance programs.
It began when New York–based journalist Michele Catalano published a post on her page at the website Medium, which went viral within hours, was republished at the Guardian’s website, and was reported on by Reuters and a host of other outlets. In the 1,200-word post, Catalano detailed how six agents from a counter terrorism unit had turned up in black SUVs at her family home earlier this week. The agents, she wrote, had apparently been monitoring her family’s Internet browsing and found something suspicious about a combination of Google searches for pressure cookers and backpacks. “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,” Catalano noted, adding that they agents specifically asked her husband whether he had “ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb?"
The tale seemed far-fetched, but not impossible. The Guardian confirmed that police had visited her home, and this summer’s revelations about the scope of the NSA’s spy programs made it feel plausible, too. Indeed, some recently leaked slides even showed that you can end up on the NSA’s radar merely by searching for what it describes as “suspicious stuff”—and scouring the Web for a backpack and information about pressure cooker bombs would surely meet those criteria.
Some news sites were quick to jump the gun. Gizmodo published a piece headed: "Yes, the FBI Is Tracking American Google Searches." And Time hysterically titled a post on the incident "You Are No Longer Free to Search on Google." But some things didn’t seem to stack up. First of all, the NSA program that involved mass mining metadata from domestic U.S. Internet networks was brought to an end in 2011. And many Google searches are now encrypted over an HTTPS connection, making it difficult for agencies to obtain information about search histories without first sending an order to Google that targets specific accounts. Google has said that “no government has the ability to pull data directly from our servers or network,” contradicting a report last month that an NSA program called PRISM enabled spies to gain “direct access” to the company’s computers systems to mine data.
So how did Catalano’s searches get flagged, then? It turns out that the cops were tipped off the old-fashioned way—by the former employer of Catalano’s husband, who saw that he had made searches about pressure cooker bombs and backpacks on a work computer, freaked out, and went to the police. Suffolk County Police Department issued a statement late Thursday confirming the details, and Catalano has since issued a clarification to her post.
There was no malicious intent on Catalano’s part, and certainly she wasn’t pulling a hoax. She just seems to have leapt to the wrong conclusion before considering other factors, which is an excusable thing to have done amid a series of revelations about secret mass surveillance. No doubt, some will refuse to believe the police statement about the employer’s tip-off—taking it as yet more evidence of a government conspiracy to monitor all Americans’ Internet activity.
But that is precisely why this saga illustrates how a burgeoning, excessively secret surveillance state is so pernicious. It feeds a culture of paranoia and mistrust, a society in which many are haunted by the lurking fear that their every move is being monitored by a spy in a dark corner somewhere—even when no one is watching at all, except maybe a nosy boss.