Michele Catalano, a writer for Forbes, Boing Boing, and other publications, received a friendly visit from the FBI at her home today, which according to her Twitter profile is in Long Island, NY.
Pro tip: don't do a search for pressure cookers right after your spouse does a search for backpacks if you don't want the FBI at your door.— Michele Catalano (@inthefade) July 31, 2013
Maybe she's only one hop away from the neighbor of the cousin of Osama bin Laden's third wife, but she doesn't seem like a terrorist.
In case we needed more proof that the U.S. government is in fact reading the contents of Americans' online activity, this should do it. That is, unless we refuse to believe it until the FBI makes a personal visit to each of our abodes. In which case, now we know which search terms tend to attract their interest.
Happy web surfing!
Below are some of Catalano's follow-up tweets.
Seriously everyone. Be careful what you're googling. Scary experience today.— Michele Catalano (@inthefade) July 31, 2013
I just want to say that the task force agents who visited my home today were nice and professional and just doing their jobs.— Michele Catalano (@inthefade) July 31, 2013
THANKS, OBAMA.— Michele Catalano (@inthefade) July 31, 2013
Update (8/1/2013, 4:00 PM): A more complete account of the story was written by Michele Catalano and published by The Guardian today. In the article, Catalano explains that she was at work at the time of the visit and that her husband provided details of the visit to her by phone immediately afterward.
The Guardian reached out to various U.S. agencies to find out exactly which federal, state, or local agency was responsible for the visit. The FBI claimed that they were not involved but that Catalano's family was "visited by Nassau County police department ... They were working in conjunction with Suffolk County police department." The level of cooperation between the FBI and local police departments in organizing the visit is not entirely clear.
See the Guardian links below:
- New York woman visited by police after researching pressure cookers online [The Guardian]
- My family's Google searching got us a visit from counterterrorism police [Michele Catalano via The Guardian]
Update (8/1/2013, 7:45 PM):
The Atlantic Wire has published a statement from the Suffolk County Police Department, which has claimed responsibility for visiting Catalano's home. It turns out that the Googling was reported by a Bay Shore-based computer company in regard to "suspicious computer searches" of a "recently released employee."
It's not clear if said company employed Michele or her husband. The former employee was Michele Catalano's husband. Here is the statement from the Suffolk County Police Department via the Atlantic Wire:
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.
It seems that the line between the FBI and local police departments is fuzzy to indistinguishable at best and that trying to draw a line between them is really a matter of splitting hairs where terrorism is concerned. This gray area may also be providing each group with a level of deniability that is virtually impenetrable except to relentless questioning by reporters, as illustrated below:
Local and state authorities work jointly with federal officials on terror investigations similar to the one Catalano describes. Both Suffolk and Nassau County's police departments are members of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), Donald confirmed. Suffolk County is also home to a "fusion center," a regionally located locus for terror investigations associated with the Department of Homeland Security. It wasn't the JTTF that led to the visit at Catalano's house, Donald told us. The task force deputizes local authorities as federal marshals, including some in Suffolk and Nassau, who can then act on its behalf. But, Donald said, "officers, agents, or other representatives of the JTTF did not visit that location.
Last update (8/2/2013): As the story has unfolded some commenters have asked that I change the initial post, reword, or reorganize things. I prefer to leave the post as it is, warts and all. I've posted some follow-up thoughts in the comments below. Have a great weekend.