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Police say New York blogger’s employer tipped them off — not Google searches for ‘pressure cookers’

By Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian
Thursday, August 1, 2013 13:46 EDT
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Pressure cooker via Shutterstock
 
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Update (Friday): Suffolk County Police released a statement indicating it was the woman’s employer — and not her Internet search activity — that tipped her off to the police. From the statement posted by Tech Crunch on Thursday evening:

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.”

After interviewing the company representatives, Suffolk County Police Detectives visited the subject’s home to ask about the suspicious internet searches. The incident was investigated by Suffolk County Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Detectives and was determined to be non-criminal in nature.

Any further inquiries regarding this matter should be directed to the Suffolk County Police Department.

Catalano released a response on her own site, explaining that she and her husband were unaware that his former employer was the source of the information. “We were not made aware of this at the time of questioning and were led to believe it was solely from searches from within our house,” she wrote.

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Long Island resident said her web search history and ‘trying to learn how to cook lentils’ prompted a visit from authorities

New York woman says her family’s interest in the purchase of pressure cookers and backpacks led to a home visit by six police investigators demanding information about her job, her husband’s ancestry and the preparation of quinoa.

Michele Catalano, who lives in Long Island, New York, said her web searches for pressure cookers, her husband’s hunt for backpacks, and her “news junkie” son’s craving for information on the Boston bombings had combined somewhere in the internet ether to create a “perfect storm of terrorism profiling”.

Members of what she described as a “joint terrorism task force” descended on Catalano’s home on Wednesday. A spokesman for the FBI told to the Guardian on Thursday that its investigators were not involved in the visit, but that “she was visited by Nassau County police department … They were working in conjunction with Suffolk County police department.”

The Guardian has contacted the Suffolk County and Nassau County police departments for comment.

Catalano was at work, but her husband was sitting in the living room as the police arrived. She retold the experience in a post on Medium.com on Thursday. She attributed the raid largely to her ongoing hunt for a pressure cooker, an item used devastatingly by the two Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, but also used by millions across the country to prepare vegetables while retaining most of their nutrients.

Catalano, a writer for indie music and politics magazine Death and Taxes wrote:

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.

At this point, Catalano said, the police 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.”

It was at this point that the conversation took a delightfully culinary turn, with quinoa making an unlikely appearance in the FBI’s inquiries:

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.

The joint terrorism task force did not press Catalano’s husband on the dilemma facing liberals over whether quinoa consumption is ethically sound – many Bolivians can no longer afford their staple food now everyone in Brooklyn is eating it.

“By this point they had realized they were not dealing with terrorists,” Catalano said.

Still, she was left worried by the visit, which she attributes to her family’s internet history.

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 (Oh my god, the joint terrorism task force was in my house and there were dirty dishes in my sink!). 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.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

Update (5:18 p.m.): Caitlin Dewey at The Washington Post followed up on Catalano’s account, trying to confirm details with the FBI. She wrote:

But after reading the questions Catalano says investigators asked her husband, it’s clear that they could come from information that is not Catalano’s search history — say, an anonymous tip from a jumpy neighbor. (Maybe someone who noted this Facebook picture.) And there’s little to suggest Catalano is on a watch-list or that any terrorism investigators were involved, at all. A spokeswoman for the FBI’s New York field office, out of which the New York and Long Island JTTTs are based, said the investigation was led by the Nassau County Police Department with assistance from the Suffolk County Police Department, and the FBI was not involved.

 “They were officers from the Nassau County Police Department who identified themselves as such,” said Kelly Langmesser, the FBI spokeswoman. But mysteriously, neither the Nassau nor Suffolk County Police would confirm their involvement in the investigation Thursday afternoon. An officer from the Nassau County Police repeatedly refused to even give her first name; a Public Information Officer in Suffolk County said she would comment when she had more information.

["Stock Photo: Steam Escaping From Lid Of Pressure Cooker With Reflection Of Modern Kitchen" on Shutterstock]

 
 
 
 
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