Friday, August 2, 2013

This Could Happen to You

Trey Smith

What is the run-of-the-mill response of average citizens to the ubiquity of mass surveillance in the US? I'm not doing anything wrong, so government spies can look all they want and they won't find much of anything. This next story might wipe that level of naivety off your face!
Music writer Michele Catalano wrote Thursday about a personal experience that may show, to bizarre but chilling effect, the government’s online surveillance in action. Catalano writes that her home was visited and searched by members of the Joint Terrorist Task Force — a fact she attributes to having searched online for pressure cookers, while her husband searched for backpacks.

Of course, there is no way to verify why Catalano’s home was selected for a raid — national security agencies are hardly free with such information. But based on questions posed by the government agents to her husband (she was not home at the time), Catalano pieced together that a “confluence” of Internet searches — activity we now know to be tracked and hoarded on databases by the NSA — brought a SWAT team to her door. She had searched for pressure cookers, her husband had searched for back packs. Following the Boston bombings, otherwise innocuous activity took on a suspicious air to the algorithms daily sifting our almost every online move on behalf of the government.

“Little did we know our seemingly innocent, if curious to a fault, Googling of certain things was creating a perfect storm of terrorism profiling. Because somewhere out there, someone was watching. Someone whose job it is to piece together the things people do on the internet raised the red flag when they saw our search history,” wrote Catalano.

Indeed, Wednesday’s revelation’s based on documents leaked by NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden showed how national security analysts regularly use keyword searches to sift and create profiles of interest out of the vast, unwieldy amount of data collected daily on almost every phone and online interaction within and going out of the U.S.

Catalano’s story, as she frames it, appears to illustrate how Internet activity both banal and curious can add up to the seemingly criminal according to government algorithims. Her story too appears to highlight — through the lens of the personal — how very much our online selves are surveilled. Interestingly, Catalalono writes that the agents who raided her house said that that carry out such raids regularly:
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 percent of visits and I’m not sure I want to know what my neighbors are up to.
Catalano adds:
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.
Maybe Catalano is up to something more than she's letting on, but that's not the real point of her testimony. No, the point is that these sorts of things must be going on all over the country. With intelligence analysts -- of varying degrees of commonsense and expertise -- utilizing a number of general search terms, it would defy credulity if they didn't frequently target individuals and families guilty of nothing sinister or nefarious.

If Catalano is being truthful and her suspicions are accurate, then her family was targeted based on very general internet activity.

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, several news outlets reported that the details of making bombs with pressure cookers could easily be found on the internet. Being the curious sort of fellow that I am, I decided to see if there was veracity to this reporting. So, I set about trying to find that sort of information. I bet a lot of other people did the same thing. Does that now mean that such searches are housed in a database somewhere? If a few months from now, I do a search of backpacks for myself or my wife, will an analyst somewhere think, "Searches for pressure cooker bombs and backpacks. Hmm. This guy might be a terrorist."?

Think of all the various words and terms several news sites have reported as being on various watch lists. If you innocently happen to write two or more of those words or you do a search utilizing two or more of those phrases -- even if days, weeks or months apart -- there is a chance that some private-contractor spy may scratch his or her chin and think, Hmm.

You see, you don't have to be up to anything "wrong." You can just be going about your routine life when a SWAT team smashes down your door. That's the real issue here.


  1. It was from a tip, not the surveillance program, and the FBI was not involved:

    1. That's the "official" line. It may well be true...or it may not. With all the public fury surrounding these ubiquitous surveillance programs, the government may have manufactured this angle simply to defuse the outrage.

      Besides, there is one part of the new "official" story that doesn't add up. The author said that the officers indicated "they do this about 100 times a week." 100 times per week based solely on employer tips and not NSA spying? I'm sorry, but that doesn't pass the smell test!


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