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Viral story of Google searches prompting a raid from the authorities is not exactly true

Evan Dashevsky | Aug. 5, 2013
The authorities are probably not watching every Google search as they happen, but your data can still draw attention in other ways.

Fresh off new Snowden-leaked revelations that the NSA has the ability to record and monitor all Internet activity, came this curious tale from writer Michele Catalano where she claimed that a chance combination of innocuous Internet searches prompted a visit from a "joint terrorism taskforce." You may have seen it tweeted about or shared on Facebook, or even seen Ms. Catalano's fuller re-telling in The Guardian. Turns out it wasn't exactly true.

In the original telling of the story, Catalano describes as "a confluence of magnificent proportions," as six officers from a non-specifically named agency came to her home for a casual visit on Wednesday morning. Catalano believed the search was prompted by a weeks-old combination of Google searches she performed for "pressure cookers" and a separate search her husband performed for "backpack" in possible conjunction with her 20-year-old son's following of links for online bomb instructions mentioned in a CNN.com article.

Catalano was not home during the 9 AM visit, but her husband and son were. The officers performed a cursory casual search around the house and asked a few questions such as "Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb?"

The officers then left and cleared the household of any suspicions. Still a crazy story, right? Well, perhaps it wasn't quite as crazy as it might seem.

It was the searches! Sort of...
While some outlets were labeling this an FBI action based on Google searches, Catalano never made that claim. I reached out to the FBI's New York Office for comment on the matter yesterday and was informed that they had no part in the investigation and that it was a joint action between the Nassau and Suffolk county police departments based on information from Suffolk County Intelligence. After we reached out, the Nassau County Police Department denied any involvement, stating the FBI was misinformed by the local Melville field office. However, late last night the Suffolk County PD released the following statement:

As a result of numerous media inquiries, received today by the Suffolk County Police Department regarding an internet blog posting, the following statement has been made available.

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."

 

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