Michele Catalano was looking for information online about pressure cookers. Her husband, in the same time frame, was Googling backpacks. Wednesday morning, six men from a joint terrorism task force showed up at their house to see if they were terrorists. Which prompts the question: How’d the government know what they were Googling?
[T]hey were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked. …
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.
The men identified themselves as members of the “joint terrorism task force.” The composition of such task forces depend on the region of the country, but, as we outlined after the Boston bombings, include a variety of federal agencies. Among them: the FBI and Homeland Security.
(Update, 12:50 p.m.: The Guardian confirmed with the FBI that the agency was aware of the visit, but that it was conducted by local police on Long Island. Local police forces participate in joint terrorism task forces, as in the Boston example above.)
Ever since details of the NSA’s surveillance infrastructure were leaked by Edward Snowden, the agency has been insistent on the boundaries of the information it collects. It is not, by law, allowed to spy on Americans — although there are exceptions of which it takes advantage. Its PRISM program, under which it collects internet content, does not include information from Americans unless those Americans are connected to terror suspects by no more than two other people. It collects metadata on phone calls made by Americans, but reportedly stopped collecting metadata on Americans’ internet use in 2011. So how, then, would the government know what Catalano and her husband were searching for?
It’s possible that one of the two of them is tangentially linked to a foreign terror suspect, allowing the government to review their internet activity. After all, that “no more than two other people” ends up covering millions of people. Or perhaps the NSA, as part of its routine collection of as much internet traffic as it can, automatically flags things like Google searches for “pressure cooker” and “backpack” and passes on anything it finds to the FBI.