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Privacy United States

Google Pressure Cookers and Backpacks: Get a Visit From the Feds 923

An anonymous reader writes "Massachusetts resident 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 raises the question: How'd the government know what they were Googling?"
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Google Pressure Cookers and Backpacks: Get a Visit From the Feds

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  • by csumpi ( 2258986 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:27PM (#44448447)
    You really need to ask this question? Or you just playing stewpit?
  • Bush (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:28PM (#44448475)

    If only we could get this Bush guy out of office this stuff wouldn't happen.

    • Re:Bush (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Oysterville ( 2944937 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:32PM (#44448535)
      Changing the puppet doesn't not necessarily change the puppeteer.
      • Re:Bush (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ImOuttaHere ( 2996813 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:51PM (#44448849)
        Which begs the questions: Who is the puppeteer? Why don't Americans do something about it?
        • Re:Bush (Score:5, Insightful)

          by meta-monkey ( 321000 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @02:08PM (#44449201) Journal

          Actually, the statement "changing the puppet doesn't change the puppeteer" begs the question, "is the president a puppet under control of a puppeteer?" The statement begs that unanswered question by assuming the answer to be yes.

          If the answer to that question is "yes," then we would raise the question, "who is the puppeteer?"

        • Re:Bush (Score:5, Interesting)

          by DickBreath ( 207180 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @02:17PM (#44449337) Homepage
          See Lawrence Lessig's TED Talk about Lesterland.

          The reason American's don't do something about it is because the Lesters (aka, the puppeteer) only offer puppets in the general election that the Lesters have pre-approved. A candidate not meeting with the Lesters' approval never makes it to the ballot of a general election. Thus making the farce of a general election seem meaningful when in fact it is not.

          As long as the population can be approximately 50/50 split over two parties (that both are attached to the puppeteer's strings) and political party fighting and mudslinging can be kept to a maximum over issues the Lesters don't care about, the populace will contentedly remain asleep and feel that they still have some actual power through the ballot box.

          The founding fathers never foresaw global megacorporations with concentrations of wealth and power that exceeds that of some actual countries.

          I hope that answers your question. Sorry for not linking the Lesterland TED Talk video, but I'm sure you can google it.
          • Re:Bush (Score:5, Insightful)

            by n1ywb ( 555767 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @02:42PM (#44449679) Homepage Journal

            The founding fathers never foresaw global megacorporations with concentrations of wealth and power that exceeds that of some actual countries.

            You've obviously never heard of The British East India Company [wikipedia.org].

          • Re:Bush (Score:5, Funny)

            by Kaenneth ( 82978 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @03:01PM (#44449947) Homepage Journal

            In short "Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos"

          • Re:Bush (Score:5, Interesting)

            by dcollins ( 135727 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @03:21PM (#44450179) Homepage

            "The founding fathers never foresaw global megacorporations with concentrations of wealth and power that exceeds that of some actual countries."

            The problem is not "both parties are the same team", nor "puppeteers giving false choices". Those are distractions.

            The problem is that the U.S. system failed to account for parties. The fact that half of Congress is on a "team", in support or opposed to the President, causes them to vote pro-team instead of for the country or their constituents, which short-circuits the checks and balances that the division of government was meant to establish. This is compounded by first-past-the-post voting which by Duverger's Law guarantees a two-party system. Then voting game theory all but assures that those two parties will converge on certain key topics (like law enforcement and war, i.e., the important stuff).

            Did the founding fathers foresee this problem? Definitely yes -- it's the whole point of Washington's Farewell Address, and it's eerily prescient. Countries with constitutions that admit to, and take into account, the presence of parties in politics don't have quite the same level of dysfunction that the U.S. does.

          • Re:Bush (Score:5, Informative)

            by khallow ( 566160 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @04:56PM (#44451071)

            The founding fathers never foresaw global megacorporations with concentrations of wealth and power that exceeds that of some actual countries.

            And the obvious counterexample to that claim is the East India Company, which was a global megacorporation of the 18th century. Recall that one of the defining events of the US revolution was the Boston Tea Party which was a protest against a tea tax and trade monopoly which was imposed to assist the East India Company. The tea that they happened to dump was East India tea.

            And at the time, the East India Company had power far beyond any modern corporation or crime organization with a valuable opium trade with China (often illegally), a standing army in India, and considerable backing from the English government who saw them as a tool to increase English power in India and elsewhere.

            So the founding fathers had a working example of such a global megacorporation in their time and had already crossed paths with it.

          • Re:Bush (Score:5, Interesting)

            by bmo ( 77928 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @07:40PM (#44452475)

            The founding fathers never foresaw global megacorporations with concentrations of wealth and power that exceeds that of some actual countries.

            I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

            Thomas Jefferson


    • Re:Bush (Score:5, Insightful)

      by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @03:14PM (#44450095) Homepage Journal

      If you folks on the right had asked one of us *liberals* back in '08, we'd have told you Obama wasn't one of us. He's essentially what would have been a centrist Republican thirty years ago. These were people, like Bob Dole, that we liberals didn't agree with, but could respect and work with. In fact, "Obamacare" pretty much follows the private sector oriented reform plans of Bob Dole. If Obama were a liberal he'd have gone with single payer, and negotiated tough price concessions with pharmaceutical manufacturers (which is the source of America's runaway heath care spending). You'd have seen banks regulated or broken apart, and criminal investigations in response to the financial crisis of '08, not an attempt to put the system back together again the way it was before the crash.

      In fact Obama is very much the kind of president Dole would have been: an economic pragmatist, a diplomatic multilateralist, and an aggressive user of military force where he perceives an imminent threat to national security.

      If you want to stop state intrusion into private affairs, you've got to stop being afraid, and convince others around you to stop being afraid. The more fear there is in the political climate, the more impunity the government has in its actions.

      Liberals got behind Obama in '08 for the same reason we got behind Obamacare: we backed the best alternative achievable in a climate of fear -- a climate, by the way, that makes the state internal security apparatus feel empowered to do anything it wants in the search for terrorists.

  • Refuse the search? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:29PM (#44448477) Journal

    This raises another question. What happens when these people refuse to answer questions or allow a search of their home?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:30PM (#44448489)

    We should all Google 'pressure cooker' and 'backpacks'. Let's send them for a spin.

  • by nweaver ( 113078 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:31PM (#44448509) Homepage

    The Atlantic article is BAD. Not only is it a summary with no additional information (and information removed), but uses a bad and unrelated photograph!

    Read the original article on Medium [medium.com], and I strongly suggest that a Slashdot editor change the article link.

    Although circumstantial, this implies one of two possibilities. Either Google is voluntarily looking for "suspicious" searches and reporting them to law enforcement, or law enforcement (using a warrant, a wiretap, a NSL, or similar) is either forcing Google to look for such suspicious searches or simply wiretapping Google.

  • by XxtraLarGe ( 551297 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:33PM (#44448561) Journal
    Maybe overload is the only way to combat this sort of thing. Encourage all of your friends to search for pressure cookers and backpacks today.
  • Seems obvious (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stewsters ( 1406737 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:33PM (#44448563)
    Because they are not just looking at the metadata of what you search on the internet, they are looking at the content of those searches.
    • Re:Seems obvious (Score:5, Insightful)

      by poo9 ( 166427 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:57PM (#44448983)

      See, "metadata" is a slippery term.
      Go ahead and do an innocuous google search. Once the results show up, take a look at the URL you've accessed.
      There it is: your search terms right there, (in human-readable format, even) in the URL itself. Is a URL metadata? I'm sure the NSA would say "yes"

      So, Google doesn't need to be complicit in any way. This is all unencrypted stuff that could easily be filtered and could theoretically be defended as being "metadata"

      Kinda makes me wonder what else you might call metadata. Are the SMS messages that piggyback on phone packets metadata? (I'll admit I don't really know anything about that so this is just speculation)

      I'd be very interested in other people's opinions on things we think of as communications content that could be argued as being metadata. Thoughts?

  • by flogger ( 524072 ) <non@nonegiven> on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:33PM (#44448567) Journal
    I use a gmail, so I figure google has tabs on what I email. it is interesting when I send a friend a chapter or short story I am working on and the ads I get after this...

    That being said, will the feds come get me if I am sending a short story about an assassination?

    A habit that I have gotten into a while back though, so as to not tie my searches in with my gmail, is that I use firefox for gmail and I use Opera in private browsing to search google. After reading this article, I realize that I am probably tracked via IP. This is disheartening.

    It's time to invest in an anonymous proxy. I think I am going to start with this article [torrentfreak.com] then investigate further.
  • by Sparticus789 ( 2625955 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:34PM (#44448583) Journal

    $i = 0
    while $i = 0
    wget ”http://www.google.com/search?q=Pressure+Cooker"
    wget ”http://www.google.com/search?q=backpack"

    'Nuff Said

  • by KernelMuncher ( 989766 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:36PM (#44448603)
    A coworker of mine is from Pakistan. His son ordered a detailed book on the engineering of the Boeing 777 airliner. Shortly thereafter two FBI agents came to his house to investigate. My coworker called his son down to meet them. When the agents found out he was 11 years old, they laughed, apologized and left.

    This happened about three years ago.
  • by pla ( 258480 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:37PM (#44448627) Journal
    Which raises the question: How'd the government know what they were Googling?"

    I, uh, don't really think we have all that much doubt about that one anymore.

    As the better question - Do the wardens of our panopticon really consider the terrorists that stupid, that they would A) try the same attack again, and B) really need to Google the concept of a backpack?
    • by ulatekh ( 775985 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @02:47PM (#44449757) Homepage Journal

      Do the wardens of our panopticon really consider the terrorists that stupid, that they would A) try the same attack again, and B) really need to Google the concept of a backpack?

      That's the problem. One of the truisms in the armed forces is that the generals are always fighting the last war. Similarly, our anti-terrorism forces are always trying to prevent the last attack. Thanks to the Unabomber, we still can't mail packages bigger than 16 ounces unless we do it in person. Thanks to the shoe-bomber, we have to take off our shoes when we go through the metal detector at the airport. Now we can't Google for pressure cookers and backpacks. Fer Crissakes.

      God forbid that some clever terrorists decide to Google for suspicious terms, with the intent of luring anti-terrorism forces into an ambush. I wonder how our somewhat dim and reactionary anti-terrorism forces would deal with that. Good thing that the average jihadist is too stupid to play that type of chess.

      And to think I was turned down for an Army info-sec position...I have exactly the sort of devious mind it takes to stay several steps ahead of the bad guys. Sadly, they prefer people with "N years of experience in this field, N years of experience in that field"...sigh.

      And the worst thing about this...it means that the terrorists have won. They never claimed to be able to destroy our country, or overwhelm us in a military sense...they said they wanted to destroy our way of life. Well, our freedom has been replaced with a paranoid, reactionary, technologically-supercharged fascist surveillance state. The terrorists didn't even have to impose it; the western world imposed it on themselves. Somewhere, two guys with a lot of Mohammeds in their name are toasting the defeat of their enemy.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:42PM (#44448705) Homepage

    One of the big problems the EFF has had suing the NSA is that of "standing" - they have a hard time showing actual harm. This guy has standing to sue. He can show actual harm from unauthorized surveillance.

    • by cheekyjohnson ( 1873388 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:52PM (#44448879)

      they have a hard time showing actual harm.

      Which is what I don't understand. Why is that necessary? Is the existence of blatantly unconstitutional practices not harm enough for them, or do they like giving the government yet another reason to keep everything secret? Oh, who am I kidding? The answer is obvious...

      • by ulatekh ( 775985 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @02:50PM (#44449811) Homepage Journal

        Which is what I don't understand. Why is that necessary? Is the existence of blatantly unconstitutional practices not harm enough for them, or do they like giving the government yet another reason to keep everything secret?

        Unfortunately, our system isn't based on common sense, or even passing the giggle test. All our system offers is the chance to take them to court. And our courts aren't impartial arbiters of facts; a trial is more like a poorly-produced stage play.

        But this is supposed to be better than the alternative.

      • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @04:22PM (#44450727)

        It's to stop people from clogging the courts in protest. It'd be really annoying if the government passed a law of slightly dubious validity and a thousand activists decided to file suit against it. With so many cases going on at once, it's inevitable courts would issue conflicting orders. While such a process could be used to stop unconstitutional laws, it could also be used to stall laws that are perfectly valid but have a dedicated opposition.

  • Proof! (Score:5, Funny)

    by ThatsNotPudding ( 1045640 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:44PM (#44448737)
    This is proof we're still living in a free country! They didn't die in a hail of military-grade automatic weapons fire.
  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:52PM (#44448869)

    In the middle of the article, you'll see that the husband also had trips to China and South Korea, so the trigger was more than just searching for backbacks and pressure cookers.

  • by cervesaebraciator ( 2352888 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:52PM (#44448877)

    This is another reason why I hate the, "if you've nothing to hide" nonsense. In the past year, I've bought a pressure cooker, large capacity backpacks, fairly sizable quantities of pure sodium hydroxide (more, anyway, than one needs to unclog the drain), soldering irons and other equipment to work on electronics, numerous tanks of propane, gun powder, and we go to shops and run in social circles frequented by Arabic speakers. Why? Because, respectively, we (my wife and I) have a garden and can vegetables, we like to go hiking, we make our own soap and detergent, I like to fool around with electronics for fun, we use propane to heat our kettles while brewing beer, I hunt with a muzzle-loader, and as Orthodox Christians a great many of our coreligionists are Palestinian or Lebanese.

    Of course the protectionist or supporter of the national security state will say, "See, you had nothing to hide. No big deal." But that's just the point. With enough information on people's activities, even the innocent ones can be construed as potentially dangerous. With enough information, anyone and everyone becomes a suspect. To say nothing of the fact that this subjects people to unreasonable searches, it lessens the chances of actually finding a legitimate focus for suspicion.

  • by quietwalker ( 969769 ) <pdughi@gmail.com> on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:56PM (#44448947)

    Now we have had various ample proof that parts of the government are exceeding their power, that they are literally breaking laws, and even the checks and balances of our system do nothing to detect and correct, often times due to collusion or tacit approval . [cnn.com] We have whistleblowers pointing out these abuses, and they're to be prosecuted, and while people may cheer for them and call them heroes, little else seems to be happening. There are more protests and support rallies for these folks in foreign lands than here in the US.

    It's not even complex: Parts of the government have been knowingly breaking the laws that they themselves were supposed to protect and enforce, yet they have not been put in jail, or even brought to trial. Nothing appears like it will change.

    I hate to sound all tin-foil-hat-infowars-crazy, but at the point where the government decides it doesn't have to follow the law, and can do anything it wants - without even a hand-waving distraction, it's not a democracy or republic - it's authoritarian leaning towards totalitarianism. Laws were broken. Someone, perhaps whole groups of someone, need to go to jail. Claiming that it's okay because a law is open to interpretation, without question, by a government body not privileged with the power of interpreting law, and then further masking it with secrecy in part to hide the legality is right out! That's not a senate committee issue. It's black and white - trial time. If the president says he knew and explicitly approved, it's also impeachment time, followed by jail time. This isn't getting a hummer in the oval office level stuff, this is beyond Nixon-level stuff.

    People turned out in the thousands for the OWS, and they didn't even have a good argument, much less any sort of attempt at a solution. Where are the thousands for this?

  • by tangent3 ( 449222 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @01:57PM (#44448971)

    Missing from the summary, of course, is that the family had a son who has actually clicked on a link to an artlcle on how to make a pressure cooker bomb.
    "But my son’s reading habits combined with my search for a pressure cooker and my husband’s search for a backpack set off an alarm of sorts at the joint terrorism task force headquarters."

    Google may not have been involved at all here. All the investigators needed were the logs for the website hosting the offending article, and a cooperating ISP, to find that family.

    • by RandCraw ( 1047302 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @02:27PM (#44449521)

      The subplot about the son is missing not just from the summary, but from The Atlantic article as well.

      Where did you get this quote? Or are you just trolling?

  • Cops? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by troll -1 ( 956834 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @02:01PM (#44449051)
    These are soldiers. It's time to start calling them what they are. The only reason they wear para military uniforms is to intimidate you. Camouflage is the new red.
  • by recharged95 ( 782975 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @02:31PM (#44449563) Journal

    A former buddy of mine at 'the fort' (cough) once said information wants to be free.

    Having worked not soley at the fort (like my buddy) but at SV companies to launching rockets, I found that his assertion was not true, but that information wants to be exploited. It's already free if you search "the right way" (as mentioned by another buddy at the 'other' agency).

    Hence, How'd the government know what they were Googling?"

    Easy. Just like every other company that does ads, they buy the info from Google.

    Of course, once weak selectors have triggered from the google data, the gov't has other systems (e.g. let's say telco info) to get the location and possibly user of the IP address that google recorded. It's what's been known in all market analysis and the hollywood industry for awhile: federated metadata search. Big Data Analytics is the buzz word for it nowadays. Nothing new here.

    Now what do we get out of this? That being anonymous is NOT anonymous anymore. We've hit the Uncertainty Principle in information sharing: if you touch "the system", you're identified. Period. Much like if you measure it, you effect the results [wikipedia.org]. So to the tinfoil hat folks, either stay under your rock or quit complaining and 'work' the system (aka opt in or opt out).

    Lastly, the Gov't takes actions that are threatening, where as the credit card companies do the exact same pattern matching, and take similar actions, of course less threatening to you by context. Think about it and you'd be more surprised if the gov't wasn't doing this in the 1st place.

  • by jklovanc ( 1603149 ) on Thursday August 01, 2013 @02:50PM (#44449807)

    Take a look at the picture in the article and compare it with the actual description of what happened;

    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.

    There was no assault team. The wife and children were not present. The picture make it look like the police terrorized an innocent family when the truth is far different.

    I hate inflammatory reporting and this is a prime example of it. The story is bad enough as it is without adding falsehoods.

  • Oblig XKCD (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Minwee ( 522556 ) <dcr@neverwhen.org> on Thursday August 01, 2013 @03:52PM (#44450445) Homepage

Every little picofarad has a nanohenry all its own. -- Don Vonada