Long Island freelance writer Michele Catalano reported two days ago on a deeply disturbing incident where six officers from an undisclosed agency came to her family home:
At about 9:00 am, my husband […] 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 gentlemen 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. […] 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.
The “gentlemen” pepper her husband with questions about pepper cookers and backpacks; about where he’s from, about his wife, about their parents and their reading habits. They say that “they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing.”
It appears that Suffolk County CID had received a tip from “a Bay Shore based computer company” about the Google searches of a former employee, Ms. Catalano’s husband, who had searched while at work for terms including “pressure cooker bombs” and “backpacks” – the former because he was curious about how the Boston Marathon bombing had happened, and the latter because they were in the market for new backpacks.
It’s still unclear exactly what agency the “gentlemen” were from. The FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force are both denying involvement. Nor do we know exactly why such Google searches triggered a full-court press from no fewer than six officers. But there are two important points that arise out of this story.
One is how blunt the tools of Internet surveillance are. Your Google search for “pressure cooker bombs” tells the authorities only that you are interested in pressure cooker bombs at that moment. As part of my research for this article, I just put it into Google myself. It doesn’t tell them why, and by itself is not evidence of any criminal intent. Nor does separately searching on the word “backpacks” help to establish such an intent. If we were still operating in a world where the Fourth Amendment were consistently applied, this evidence alone would not be nearly enough to demonstrate probable cause to a judge that the person in question was engaged in or planning criminal activity. Instead, we’re operating in an environment of high governmental paranoia about people’s search activity, where agencies have to find ways of justifying an over-muscled and over-funded security state.
The second point is that we don’t know whether a warrant was issued, or whether the “gentlemen” felt that one was needed, because Ms. Catalano’s husband did not assert his Fourth Amendment rights (and may in fact have been afraid to do so). He could have refused them entry without a warrant; they may or may not have complied; but he had every right to refuse. It’s just not something many people think of doing, and in consequence law enforcement feels able to intrude on our homes at will. Like the “gentlemen” in Buffy, their success depends on our silence.