The Internet went wild on Thursday for a blog post written by a Long Island journalist who claimed that a Google search for “pressure cooker” and “backpack” had led police to her doorstep. Turns out that wasn’t really the case. Michele Catalano wrote a post on Medium that claimed “six agents from the joint terrorism task force” came to her front door as a result of the searches. “Little did we know our seemingly innocent, if curious to a fault, Googling of certain things was creating a perfect storm of terrorism profiling,” she wrote. “Because somewhere out there, someone was watching.” At a time of Edward Snowden and heightened paranoia over NSA surveillance, the implication was clear: Everyone is being watched. Always.
Turns out though, it was the former employer of Catalano’s husband doing the watching. Following the online uproar, Suffolk County police explained that “detectives received a tip from a Bay Shore-based computer company regarding suspicious computer searches conducted by a recently released employee.” Apparently Catalano’s husband had been searching for the terms “pressure cooker bombs” and “backpacks” in his work computer and his former employers became paranoid they could have a terrorist in their midst.
Catalano defended her work, updating her post to point out that that the police never said they showed up at her doorstep because of searches her husband carried out at his former job. They “were led to believe it was solely from searches from within our house,” Catalano wrote. Some, including the Washington Post, expressed early skepticism of the story, partly due to several key missing details. But the story was just too good to check many outlets decided to run with it even though Catalano refused to answer questions.
“At a time where we’re treated almost daily to new revelations about covert government surveillance, it’s easy to see why this story found traction,” wrote Wired’s David Kravets and Kevin Poulsen. “But bogus claims of secret data mining and ‘profiling’ detract from the real news. So please let’s stop.”