Another Wild Story About Government Spying Circulates the Internet, Only to Be Debunked Later
As news of Edward Snowden’s one year asylum in Russia and his subsequent departure from his stay at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow (a story for another day) broke across the internet, yet another wild claim about government surveillance circumnavigated the globe.
I’m not talking about The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald’s latest article, which I preemptively covered earlier in the week. Specifically, this was a story posted on Medium.com by a BoingBoing writer and former Forbes contributor, Michele Catalano, and it generated another tsunami of outrage porn for the anti-NSA Team Greenwald crowd.
But it turned out to be a great big nothing.
Catalano wrote that she had innocuously searched Google for pressure cookers (coincidentally the Tsarnaev Brothers’ weapon of choice), while her husband has searched for backpacks (also, coincidentally, the Tsarnaev Brothers’ luggage of choice), and her son had been reading news articles about bombings.
What could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward to Wednesday morning. Catalano reported that while she was at work on Wednesday, a fleet of ominous black SUVs appeared in front of her house while her husband was at home.
[Catalano's husband] looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.
Six gentleman in casual clothes emerged from the vehicles and spread out as they walked toward the house, two toward the backyard on one side, two on the other side, two toward the front door.
[...] He walked outside and the men greeted him by flashing badges. He could see they all had guns holstered in their waistbands.
The men questioned Catalano’s husband for 45 minutes about his trips abroad, his family history and so forth. The officials also performed a cursory search of Catalano’s home. She ended the article with the same paranoia we’ve seen over and over again from Team Greenwald:
This is where we are at. Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list. Where you have to watch every little thing you do because someone else is watching every little thing you do. [...]
I’m scared. And not of the right things.
So you can imagine how rapidly this story was picked up.
I’m not exactly sure who posted in what order, but the first major article appears to have been posted on The Atlantic Wire. For the record, The Atlantic was also a culprit in my previous article about how a wild theory about NSA transformed into factual reality.
This time, writer Philip Bump noted that in Catalano’s story the men identified themselves as being from the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). Catalano never actually wrote that the men had identified themselves at all. Instead, she merely stated they were from the “joint terrorism task force” (lower case, oddly).
Bump continued by speculating about possible FBI and Homeland Security involvement and described how NSA’s PRISM and XKEYSCORE might’ve led authorities to Catalano’s house.
Let the game of journalistic Telephone begin.
Andrew Sullivan wrote that the “FBI and Homeland Security” visited Catalano. Raw Story and The Guardian posted articles about the incident. Popular liberal blogger Digby speculated about the FBI’s involvement, as well as the “Insider Threat” program. Business Insider posted about it, Alan Colmes posted about it and Yahoo! News re-posted Bump’s article with this attention-grabbing but inaccurate headline: Google Pressure Cookers and Backpacks, Get a Visit from the Feds. Gizmodo posted the headline: Yes, The FBI Is Tracking American Google Searches. There were also frantic tweets like these:
There was this tweet from Catalano herself, identifying the investigators as members of the FBI:
To his credit, Greenwald appears to not have posted anything about it [see CORRECTION below]. But his Mini-Me, Salon.com’s David Sirota, wondered on Twitter whether this is how “NSA is deploying its Internet surveillance.”
Never mind that NSA is tasked with foreign intelligence and not domestic law enforcement — another indication that many of the most histrionic critics of NSA have no idea what NSA is all about.
Every time one of these stories launches — berzerker-style — through the tubes, reality eventually emerges. The rule of thumb is to wait for around 12 hours before the clarifications and updates pop up. This time, it took around eight hours, but only after the story had earned some serious frequent flyer miles.
It turns out the mystery goon squad was actually the Suffolk County Criminal Intelligence Detectives, part of the Suffolk County Police Department. While the Suffolk County PD is technically associated with the JTTF, it wasn’t NSA or FBI or Homeland Security or the JTTF itself that led the investigators to Catalano’s Google searches and then to her home.
It was Catalano’s husband’s former boss.
Apparently, Catalano’s husband worked for a Bay Shore computer company, and the Google searches were conducted on a work computer. The husband’s former boss discovered the dubious searches for “pressure cooker bombs” and “backpacks” and alerted the authorities.
So, no, NSA didn’t flag her Google search; it didn’t suspect her of being a terrorist; and it didn’t dispatch a team of government agents to her house. Not only did this not happen, but NSA would only have been targeting Catalano (using an individual court order) if she or her husband were communicating with suspected terrorists overseas. But none of this matters when there are garments to rend and 140-character outrage porn to be retweeted. The viral game of journalistic Telephone continues, with one source feeding the next and wild speculation tossed into the mix that, when blockquoted enough times, suddenly emerges on the other side of the looking glass as factual reality — more fuel for outrage.
Sadly, this will probably keep happening. Read with extreme caution.
CORRECTION: Greenwald did, in fact, tweet about the story.