Google Pressure Cookers and Backpacks, Get a Visit from the Feds

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Google Pressure Cookers and Backpacks, Get a Visit from the Feds

Atlantic Wire

Philip Bump

August 1, 2013

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?

Catalano (who is a professional writer ) describes the tension of that visit.

[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.

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.

Or maybe it was something else. On Wednesday, The Guardian reported on XKeyscore, a program eerily similar to Facebook search that could clearly allow an analyst to run a search that picked out people who'd done searches for those items from the same location. How those searches got into the government's database is a question worth asking; how the information got back out seems apparent.

It is also possible that there were other factors that prompted the government's interest in Catalano and her husband. He travels to Asia, she notes in her article. Who knows. Which is largely Catalano's point.

They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing. I don’t know what happens on the other 1% of visits and I’m not sure I want to know what my neighbors are up to.​

One hundred times a week, groups of six armed men drive to houses in three black SUVs, conducting consented-if-casual searches of the property perhaps in part because of things people looked up online.

But the NSA doesn't collect data on Americans, so this certainly won't happen to you.
Nice to know this baloney is happening, that this data collecting operation is not at all entirely passive. I was thinking at first that perhaps her husband is a Muslim, but if the JTTF is conducting searches at the clip of a hundred per week, then I am guessing they go after anything that sends up a red flag in their system.

The woman was probably scared out of her wits, but if I were her I would have tried to keep the presence of mind to ask to see a warrant and to refuse consent to a search unless they had one. Or has that right been abrogated by these JTTF goons? Considering that these militarized thugs are already barking up the wrong tree, the last thing you want them doing is going through your garage and basement looking for things that these morons believe could be used to make a bomb. There are very good reasons why Americans are supposed to have certain rights, one reason being the protection of the totally innocent .

But even if those rights still function, the problem is that this surveillance state has grown entirely out of control. Maybe one way for citizens to combat this would be to have hundreds, preferably thousands of people doing daily searches on "pressure cooker", "backpack", "how to make a bomb", "allahu akbar", and anything else that pops in mind. Anything that gums up the gears would be a welcome thing.
People are too afraid to ask, or they just assume they've lost the right to do so.

My generation is growing up without even understanding the need for a warrant. It's assumed the police are immune to the law as they are agents of it.

This is a good thing. Pressure cookers degrade food, harming its nutritional qualities. And backpacks... dont even get me started about them. Neither of both items is protected by the bill of rights, they are not even mentioned there.

The fed is on the right path here. D

No, the Patriot Act gives them the right to conduct searches without a warrant, and to imprison people indefinitely without a trial, provided it's somehow connected to a terrorism investigation. I can imagine eventually the word "terrorism" will be expanded to include anything the powers that be don't approve of.

I googled 'backpack pressure cooker bomb', 'how to make pressure cooker bomb', and 'weak targets washington dc' on Monday, and as of today I have not had any untoward visits from law enforcement. I will keep everyone updated on any future developments.


I googled "pressured backpack": zero hits. It's a wonderful idea though. It would compensate for pressure differences when climbing high peaks, better preserving the food. I hope the federales see this thread and develop the product.


After reading Arc's reply above I do believe a ZOG agent will be arriving soon to steal my solar panels, it's unfortunate but I deserve it for clicking this thread.