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BLOG: Someone is spying on your Google searches -- but it's not who you think

Robert X. Cringely | Aug. 5, 2013
The good news: The FBI and NSA may not be spying on your Internet activities. The bad news: Plenty of others can

Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb? My husband, ever the oppositional kind, asked them if they themselves weren't curious as to how a pressure cooker bomb works, if they ever looked it up. Two of them admitted they did.

It seemed to confirm all our our most paranoid fears about NSA domestic spying — that an innocent Google search could lead to a physical search and possibly worse.

The reaction across the Internet was predictable. Twitter exploded. Some accused Catalano of making up the story because she had presented no proof. (How one proves such a thing happened afterward, short of having set up a hidden camera before the cops arrived, they never bothered to explain.) Some suggested that perhaps it was not Google searches but a Facebook photo of high-end firecrackers Catalano had posted on July 4 that may have tipped the spooks (as if that's a whole lot better). Others suggested it was more likely nosy or spiteful neighbors who called in the authorities. (That was the theory I liked best.)

Workplace Googling: Don't do it
It took several hours for the real story to emerge. The men in plainclothes were not feds; they were local Suffolk County investigators, who had been tipped to Google searches for "pressure cooker bombs" and "backpacks" by the husband's former employer back in April. The county released a statement to the media explaining what happened.

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."

So, yes, Google searches did indeed lead to physical searches. But it wasn't Ed Snowden's former friends on the other end of the Catalano's Google connection, it was a Long Island tech company — most likely Speco Technologies — that was examining the search histories of a recently released employee, a not uncommon practice. Given the timing, so close to the Boston bombings, you can understand why their first instinct after seeing searches for pressure cooker bombs was to call the cops.

The ironic part: Speco makes video surveillance gear. Catalano's husband could have easily have hidden cameras to record the whole event, leaving little doubt as to the veracity of the story.

The lessons here? In the post-Snowden era it is easy to jump to conclusions, whether you're a blogger working with limited information, a reporter trying to pin down the facts, or a tech company trying to glean a former employee's intent.

 

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