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Snowden’s privacy warning is borne out by NY family’s creepy experience — Updated

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This piece by New York writer Michele Catalano is going viral. Her Long Island house got visited by law enforcement agents — agents of the “Joint Terrorism Task Force”— on Wednesday, because she had searched online for a pressure cooker and her husband had searched for a backpack.

Catalano’s piece speaks to Edward Snowden’s contention that he is not alone, that there will be many more Bradley Manning’s and Edward Snowden’s as ordinary Americans who have strong independent characters survey what has happened to our civil rights in the shadow of the war on terror.

Catalano excerpts:

What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He 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.

A million things went through my husband’s head. None of which were right. He walked outside and the men greeted him by flashing badges. He could see they all had guns holstered in their waistbands.

“Are you [name redacted]?” one asked while glancing at a clipboard. He affirmed that was indeed him, and was asked if they could come in. Sure, he said.

They asked if they could search the house, though it turned out to be just a cursory search. They walked around the living room, studied the books on the shelf (nope, no bomb making books, no Anarchist Cookbook), looked at all our pictures, glanced into our bedroom, pet our dogs. They asked if they could go in my son’s bedroom but when my husband said my son was sleeping in there, they let it be.

Meanwhile, they 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…

They never asked to see the computers on which the searches were done. They never opened a drawer or a cabinet. They left two rooms unsearched. I guess we didn’t fit the exact profile they were looking for so they were just going through the motions.

They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing….

I felt a sense of creeping dread take over. What else had I looked up? What kind of searches did I do that alone seemed innocent enough but put together could make someone suspicious? Were they judging me because my house was a mess …

Mostly I felt a great sense of anxiety. 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.

All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online.

I’m scared. And not of the right things.

Thanks to Colin Wright.

Update: Forbes reports that the surveillance originated in a suspicious boss not in “big brother.”

The Internet activity was actually monitored by an employer not the feds. The Suffolk County police department says that it questioned the family after getting a tip about suspicious computer searches on an ex-employee’s work computer. The statement from the police department:

‘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.”’

Thanks to Donald.

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24 Responses

  1. Donald
    Donald
    August 2, 2013, 11:15 am

    It turns out it was a tip from his boss–he was doing his google searches on the work computer and the boss called the cops, or so this story says–

    link to forbes piece which I found at Digby’s blog Hullabaloo

  2. David Doppler
    David Doppler
    August 2, 2013, 11:29 am

    It is apparent that

    1. NSA and various other agencies and their contractors can follow every keystroke, and can search vast repositories to find whatever they are looking for.

    2. They are prepared to mislead and prevaricate and dissemble in public statements to conceal their capability.

    3. Many of them feel righteous in doing so, on the basis that what they do is essential to foil terrorist plots and protect the homeland. Many Congresspersons either have bought into this thinking, or have been corrupted by those with big interests in these capabilities. “Inside the Beltway” includes a certain “group think” that influences the whole lot.

    4. Snowden proves that many low-level people have access and can do what they want with it (including downloading it and taking it to foreign countries), without effective oversight.

    It is inevitable that the capability will not only be used to screen for “known threats,” such as illustrated here (Big Brother is watching every keystroke), but for political purposes and greed-related insider knowledge, to be leveraged in government contracting, through hedge funds and various other corrupt purposes to make easy money.

  3. piotr
    piotr
    August 2, 2013, 11:56 am

    There are reasons to doubt the “official” version because it is inconsistent with the account of Michele Catalano. Number one, she was investigating “pressure cooker” before deciding that rice cooker is what she needs. Although her husband could be inspired to make a similar search. Number two, if there were about 100 such checks, I doubt that they were prompted solely by tips from employers. Number three, it is highly unclear how the employer would know what key words for Google searches were used on their computer.

    By the way, I suspect that if you conduct your searches in a language different than English than this investigating/snooping tool can be quite disabled. In particular, “Google translate” is a very good tool for finding amusement. One feature of that program is that when there are several possibilities, it tries all of them one after another. Thus a title from Polish press that occurred twice on a list of news stories was rendered as follows:

    Komorowski lost his arms
    Komorowski lost his coat

    The person is the current President. Quiz: what did he loose? Mind you, the first version suggests that the Polish president was a victim of a terrorist attack.

    • ckg
      ckg
      August 3, 2013, 7:27 am

      Agree with one and two. On three, the search query appears in the web page name of the search results. This is true for Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Many employers track employee’s browser page histories, mostly to see how much time they are wasting.

  4. piotr
    piotr
    August 2, 2013, 12:18 pm

    The final sentences of LA Times editorial on Snowden: “Disclosing intelligence operations directed at foreign countries does nothing to protect Americans’ privacy, and it doesn’t seem to us like whistle-blowing.

    Snowden is entitled to his day in court, but that won’t be possible as long as Russia shelters him on the mistaken premise that he is a victim of political persecution.”

    LA Times is considerably more enlightened than NY Times, and these final sentences have a whiff of appeasing corporate censors after making many critical observations about US government. That said, it is an attitude that is utterly baffling to non-Americans. Suppose that Snowden is not a “victim of political persecution”. Possibility: he uncovered operations that may be directed at Russia and China. While it may be of no consequence to Americans, why Russia and China are not expected to appreciate it? Possibility: Snowden is a traitor. Then the situation is clear: USA shelters Russian traitors who benefited USA and vice versa and nobody complains about it or pontificates that this is “mistaken”.

    The expectation (or obligation) that a country that is not “a faithful vassal” is supposed to deport people who damaged American national interest, but not their interest, simply does not exists and USA never deported anyone for a similar reason. The image of Senator Schumer whining about being stabbed and the knife being twisted has high comedic value in foreign TV newscasts.

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka
      August 2, 2013, 12:30 pm

      The final sentences of LA Times editorial on Snowden: “Disclosing intelligence operations directed at foreign countries does nothing to protect Americans’ privacy, and it doesn’t seem to us like whistle-blowing.

      The block-headedness of this statement is mindblowing, as they appear to assume that the only interest which the American people might have in their government’s actions is in whether it impacts their own privacy. Do they not ever consider that we may also wish to have a government that does this to others? Can they also not see the slippery slope whereby permitting this to happen to “them” means that it will evenutally be unleashed on “us”?

      • piotr
        piotr
        August 3, 2013, 3:17 pm

        I was objecting to the conclusion that “Russians have a mistaken belief”. It is precisely the foreign reach of the snooping capabilities of NSA that the Russians would appreciate to learn about.

        A White House staffer already mentioned that USA would never send a Russian defector back to Russia, because hot heads in Senate and House want to legislate something stupid. One problem is that Russia is not an ally and currently USA is not doing Russia any favors. For every single “nice thing” that they get there is a “nice thing” that we get. Russia is not an Equador that can get in trouble if we stop the import of cut flowers (making roses a bit more expensive here).

    • MRW
      MRW
      August 2, 2013, 1:37 pm

      The Israelization of the United States.

      (Jeff Halper warned about this three and a half years ago, although he called it something like The Global Pacification Industry.)

      • SQ Debris
        SQ Debris
        August 5, 2013, 4:31 pm

        The first creepy bit of evidence of the Israelization of the U.S. was images of Afghan prisoners being pushed around with hoods on their heads. Must be ten years ago now. Hooding has been applied to Palestinian people in Israeli custody for decades.

  5. HarryLaw
    HarryLaw
    August 2, 2013, 12:25 pm

    1984 is upon us, every keystroke and every site visited can be known to the United Stasi of America, Palestinian supporters on this site will have special attention, you Phil are well in the frame, so changing the subject to copperhead snakes will not give you a pass.

  6. Danaa
    Danaa
    August 2, 2013, 12:31 pm

    This incident would hint at the methodology used in data mining operations, which are no doubt conducted continuously on ‘captured” data streams. We have not seen yet the code name for this type of mining operation, since this speaks to an automated mining, which is unlike the manual one comprising xKeystroke. And improvements are no doubt made everyday to affect what was once called “Total Information Awareness”. Something that was supposedly voted down except that such negative outcome was only taken as a sign that it should be done in secret.

    The idea that the NSA IS NOT doing data mining on just about every internet operation they can is laughable. Of course they do, and of course we all suspect they do. We would be fools not to assume that every action we take on the internet – as American citizens – is open to inspection, privacy laws be damned.

    To listen this week to those contrived denials by NSA types and their white house and congressional enablers is to know that the entire political apparatus – congress AND white house – have become hopelessly intertwined. The entire governance system, including those kangaroo FISA courts and much of the judicial system – the supreme court not excepted, have been corrupted so thoroughly that worries about some so-called ‘constitutional guarantees’ are no more than silly buzz words to those in power – something to get around using “more innovative” legal interpretations.

    To make things more worrisome, it should be born in mind just who the companies are to which NSA has outsourced some of its most critical and secretive operations. Narus, has cleverly been repackaged and sold to Boeing, its israeli directors now doing “something” for Deutche telecom. Probably similar to what they helped American telecom companies. Then there is Verint and Palantir, just to mention a couple more names in the news – each tasked with a different aspect of thesnooperology. As for those who think that much of the intercepted, collected, stored and mined data doesn’t end up somewhere in Tel Aviv, why, there’s a nice beach front property I’d like sell them in Arizona.

    The people I don’t envy are the poor hapless IT managers – especially in European companies – trying to sell outsourcing company operations to say, the Microsoft cloud. i wonder what their power point sale charts look like nowadays. especially where “data security” is mentioned. Is there a smiley next to it?

  7. DICKERSON3870
    DICKERSON3870
    August 2, 2013, 12:48 pm

    RE: “I’m scared. And not of the right things.” ~ Michele Catalano

    AU CONTRAIRE: No, she is scared about precisely the right things! My “U.S. – authoritarian/fascistic tendencies” file overfloweth. It is exceeded only by my “Israel – authoritarian/fascistic tendencies” file. This is yet another reason I fear that Revisionist Zionism and Likudnik Israel (specifically by virtue of their inordinate sway over the U.S.) might very well be an “existential threat” to the values of The Enlightenment [like the “right of free speech” and the “freedom of association”]! ! !
    “Down, down, down we [the U.S.] go into the deep, dark abyss; hand in hand with Israel.”

    P.S. OTHER EXAMPLES OF ISRAEL’S VALUES TRUMPING (OVERRIDING) THE VALUES OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT – http://mondoweiss.net/2013/05/markets-propaganda-waughs.html#comment-566771

    P.P.S. THE LAB (2012) – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2419246/

    • DICKERSON3870
      DICKERSON3870
      August 2, 2013, 1:15 pm

      P.P.P.S. RE: “THE LAB (2012)” – me (from above)

      INTERNET MOVIE DATABASE:

      Hamaabada (2012)
      58 min – Documentary | History | News – 24 April 2013 (Switzerland)
      Director: Yotam Feldman

      Storyline

      Since 9/11, the Israeli arms industries are doing bigger business then ever before. Large Israeli companies develop and test the vessels of future warfare, which is then sold worldwide by private Israeli agents, who manipulate a network of Israeli politicians and army commanders, while Israeli theoreticians explain to various foreign countries how to defeat civil and para-military resistance. All based on the extensive Israeli experience. The film reveals The Lab, which has transformed the Israeli military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank from a burden to a marketable, highly profitable, national asset. Written by Anonymous

      Genres: Documentary | History | News

      Country: Israel | France | Belgium

      Language: Hebrew

      Release Date: 24 April 2013 (Switzerland)

      Production Co: Factory, The, Gum Films, Luna Blue Film

      Runtime: 58 min

      SOURCE – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2419246/

      ALSO SEE:
      “Profiting off war: A look into the world of Israeli arms dealing”, By Eilat Maoz, Haokets.org, 7/27/13
      LINK –
      “The Israeli Lab and the Palestinian Guinea Pigs”, By Gilad Atzmon, Information Clearing House, 6/17/13
      LINK – http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article35311.htm

  8. atime forpeace
    atime forpeace
    August 2, 2013, 5:49 pm

    This story although different than initially reported should still gives us pause for concern. It sounds like they investigated this family through other means before arriving, how else would they know of the visits to foreign countries? how about if they are actually doing this as often as they claimed every week…where are these other stories if true?

    “They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week,” Catalano continues, “and that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing.”

    They asked my husband about his work, his visits to South Korea and China. The tone was conversational.”

  9. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    August 2, 2013, 9:18 pm

    They said it was because one spouse was looking online at work, and the workplace called. However, the other article says:

    because she had searched online for a pressure cooker and her husband had searched for a backpack.
    So they were both searching at the one spouse’s workplace? That sounds unlikely.

  10. Citizen
    Citizen
    August 3, 2013, 5:33 am

    What is the relation between AIPAC and the Israeli companies Narus, Verint, Palantir, all companies working closely with the US government’s spying on its own citizens, which Snowden revealed?
    Here’s an article from 2008 discussing this issue. Note that Kerry’s been involved all along–defending Israeli connections:
    http://electronicintifada.net/content/how-israel-helps-eavesdrop-us-citizens/7788

  11. Citizen
    Citizen
    August 3, 2013, 5:50 am

    Looks like all the tech companies deny they are connected with NSA’s spying program, including Palantir which just happens to have software coincidentally named Prism: http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/06/07/startup-palantir-denies-its-prism-software-is-the-nsas-prism-surveillance-system/

  12. Citizen
    Citizen
    August 3, 2013, 6:32 am

    Narus & NSA re “ultimate internet spying tool”–from Wired, 2006: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2006/05/70914, the

    • Citizen
      Citizen
      August 3, 2013, 7:15 am

      Wikipedia: Narus is the worldwide leader in the production of mass surveillance systems as of 2013. It is a subsidiary of Boeing providing real-time network traffic and analytics software with “enterprise class” spyware capabilities.[1][2] It was co-founded in Israel in 1997 by Ori Cohen, who had served as Vice President of Business and Technology Development for VDONet, an early media streaming pioneer, and Stas Khirman.[3]
      Narus is noted for having created NarusInsight, a supercomputer system, whose installation in AT&T’s San Francisco Internet backbone gave rise to a 2006 class action lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against AT&T, Hepting v. AT&T.[4]
      Narus provided Egypt Telecom with Deep Packet Inspection equipment, a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, as it passes through routers on the information superhighway. Other Narus global customers include the national telecommunications authorities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two countries that regularly register alongside Egypt near the bottom of Human Rights Watch’s world report.

  13. Citizen
    Citizen
    August 3, 2013, 7:03 am

    On Verint: http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/01/30/verint_the_american_company_helping_governments_spy_on_billions_of_communications.html

    According to Wikipedia, approximately half of Verint’s employees have been located in Israel. US Airport security use its programs.

  14. Tuyzentfloot
    Tuyzentfloot
    August 4, 2013, 6:05 am

    If I summarize it for myself, I think I have two main arguments against the current approach to snooping

    1. On principle. People’s data should be respected and left alone as much as possible, even if it means terrorist attacks will happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The main reason I see for supporting the principle is not privacy. Part of the information that’s being gathered is not really private. But I see a threat that free speech is stifled. So for me it threatens political active citizens.

    2. Then there is an argument of effectiveness and I think that the more data they gather the worse the result is. The signal to noise ratio deteriorates.

    – It bears repeating that the 9/11 attacks did not occur due to lack of information. The actionable information was there but there was -for whatever reason- a lack of interest in the information that was harvested with the system as it existed.

    – Gathering more data indiscriminitely will mean you have to search for the needle in a bigger haystack. A lot more things will appear interesting, and a lot of resources will go into these things. Major events will be less likely to surface in time because the they are drowned out by the overload. But in hindsight you can see it’s all there. Probably the NSA has found that the buildup to the Boston bombings was obvious from the data in hindsight.

    – The large haystack generates a lot of events. Things that might happen.
    I wouldn’t say all these events are innocent, because a lot of things happen that aren’t really innocent. But they’re not what the system was claimed to be set up for. And this is used as justification for the approach. There is the claim that hundreds of terrorist attacks have been foiled this way. That implies that these were attacks that would actually would have happened if nobody would have interfered. Note that there are always many more than hundreds of people who can be convinced to participate in planting a bomb somewhere. And it implies that the new system spotted things that the pre2000 could no spot.
    So you have a system that generates a lot of noise, and the noise is then used to justify the system.

    – The people who are actually planning attacks and are competent enough to do something significant, will be more motivated to stay off the official channels. Something may well pop up eventually, but this means the indiscriminate datamining is biased towards random people. And towards political active people.

    Finally there’s a distinction between effectiveness and efficiency.
    One can argue about there being too many false positives. That makes me uneasy because natural reply arguing about efficiency is that of course that is there are always false positives and that should be acceptable, but everything should be done to reduce the false positives. You just get “we should make it even better”. Which is working at the wrong end.

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