Google Search Pressure-Cooker Saga Shows How Surveillance Fuels Paranoia and Mistrust

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 2 2013 3:14 PM

Google Search Pressure-Cooker Saga Shows How Surveillance Fuels Paranoia and Mistrust

Is anyone really watching what you search for?

On Thursday, there was an important cautionary tale about trust and paranoia in an age of sweeping Internet surveillance programs.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

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.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?