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A Long Island woman named Michele Catalano posts photos of M-66 explosives (that look to me like extra-large firecrackers) publicly on Facebook. A few weeks later the local cops show up and ask her husband if they have any bomb-making equipment.

Instead of drawing the most likely conclusion, she instead blames this on local Long Island cops MONITORING HER GOOGLE SEARCHES. I am not making this up. And news organizations uncritically reproduce this claim:
http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2013/08/government-knocking-doors-because-google-searches/67864/

Public posts are public, and any number of people could have found it and tipped off the cops, or law enforcement could vacuum up all public photos and do some rudimentary image analysis to match against photos of explosives. We've known for years that police peruse Facebook, after all: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-20000550-38.html

The difference is that your Internet searches are supposed to be, well, private. And if somehow curious local cops know what you're privately searching for, that is a big story. Having curious local cops ask you questions about your public photos of explosives is not.
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45 comments
 
While we've seen hints of it for years - this post-Snowden wave of reporting shows many (even possibly stalwarts) are valuing time to market over serious reporting. That discussion needs equal footing with privacy/security threads. Otherwise credibility is shot. 
 
While a good point, the idea that a TACTICAL TEAM might show up at my door due to a public Facebook photo posting is disturbing.
 
Yeah, I don't find this any more comforting, actually. I think it's a story either way.
 
They're fireworks. I grew up playing with fireworks larger than these things. Now, I'd be investigated as a terrorist. The response to this situation was an overreaction & another scene out of security theater. Beware the Thought Police!
 
+Dylan VB Tweney It is overreaction and, sadly, a sign of the times. But it is a different story entirely than "COPS ARE MONITORING ALL OF MAH INTERNET SEARCHES," which is a real privacy and security problem. Remember, only the NSA is supposed to be monitoring your Internet searches. :)
 
Is the picture attached to that story from the event being reported, or is that part of the Boston marathon bombing manhunt? Seems odd that an AP photographer would be around for a surprise police visit. If it's unrelated, then wow, is it misleading attaching it to this story.
 
Do we know that's what prompted the police visit?  If posting stock pictures of legal (in many states) fireworks warrants a police visit our problems are more serious than we thought.
 
yeah but she said they asked specifically about the pressure cooker, so unless she's lying, there are still some questions, right? also, since when does your house get raided after you post a picture like that? it's not as though it's a picture of her setting them off in the neighborhood... this feels an awful lot like damage control, come to think of it...
 
There are certainly more questions than answers in this case. 
 
+M. L. Hunt Alas, I'm working on an unrelated story today.
+Andrew Purcell I would be surprised if cops on routine visits about explosives did not ask about pressure cookers. The Boston bombing wasn't that long ago.
 
I'll agree that the stock photo in the article is super misleading. But so is your "he posted pictures of explosives" crap. It's a stock photo of fireworks. Which makes me wonder what's with all this support for raiding someone's home because they happen to post some stock photo of fireworks? This was clearly an inappropriate use of military/police (where's the line?) intel.
 
I'm not defending the cops. Arguably showing up in response to a FB post is even dumber than in response to the hypothetical Internet search monitoring.

But facts matter: you are incorrect to call this a "raid." Instead the cops showed up at a reasonable hour, in plainclothes rather than with lights flashing, the husband was "almost laughing" about it, they entered the house only with permission, they "shook my husband's hand and left." Overreaction (assuming my theory is correct), yes. Raid? Absolutely not.
 
I strongly suspect that there is more going on here - a stock photo of fireworks posted on July 4th isn't going to be suspicious. At the same time, the suggestion that the police have routine, no-notice access to private individual's Google searches is also ridiculous.

However, "more going on here" isn't yet a story and takes time to investigate, and by the time you're done might not be that interesting after all, so...
 
So what you try to say is that being raided because of posting a picture of firecrackers the 4th of July on Facebook makes more sense than being raid because of your researches on Google?

MURICA!!!

Full of non sense. And you rule the world. Hopefully not for too long.

http://youtu.be/UKyhTX9LQEA?t=20s
 
Declan, I take your point, but what was it then, an inspection? It was certainly "the authorities" showing up to conduct a search and ask questions. It's not a SWAT raid, obviously, and I knew that, but they sent six -- not two -- SIX people. To me that's overkill and unnecessarily intimidating, but I guess we'll have to just disagree on that. Cheers. 
 
+Guiwald Doh If you're looking for someone to defend the cops, look somewhere else. I already said that my theory makes them look "even dumber" than the original one.
 
+Andrew Purcell For some reason, most governmental authority figures don't view themselves as threatening. I know the two DYFS workers who showed up at our house after bizarre miscommunications started a paper trail they had to follow up on were very insulted when our subsequent contact with them was through attorney. They were honestly surprised that we'd been freaked out and scared by their visit. We did get it cleared up finally (after 6 months) but throughout they did not seem to understand how freaked out we were at representatives of the agency that takes kids away visiting our house. And I'm sure that a big part of that is because those people believe themselves to be nice and obviously on the side of the good guys.

I strongly suspect these cops are the same way - they honestly don't understand why anyone would make a big deal out of stopping by and asking questions like this because they do dozens of visits like this a week and know that mostly it's no big deal. They've forgotten how afraid they make people by showing up out of the blue.
 
Thank you for clarifying.  One caveat with the internet is the speed with which inaccurate reports can spread.  Parsing out the truth while  not obscuring the positive effects of reported facts is one of the greatest challenges we face with such wide-spread availability of information.
 
+Declan McCullagh So you don't buy the claims of the government having deep access to corporate data? Or you just don't think it's the case here?  Could you refute Snowden's XKeyscore and PRISM leaks?
 
It is not illegal to post pictures of ANYTHING.  Your insinuation that anyone could tip off the cops is just pushing forward the agenda that people posting pictures or statements should be careful... No! They can post whatever they would like of whatever they like.  Just because you post pictures of something doesn't mean you have the item!  Get real. The cops need to back off. We are reaching fever-pitch insanity with the militarization of our police forces.
 
First: the list of things that are illegal to post pictures of on the internet is very short. As such we should all feel pretty free under the first amendment to post pictures of all kinds of things on Facebook all day long without the police knocking on our door a week later.

Second: M-66's aren't some sort of military weapon or anything. They're not even industrial explosives. They're consumer fireworks, as it says right on the side of them in this very photo.

Third: Would it be any better if it is in fact the case that police are harassing people over posting artsy photos of consumer fireworks on Facebook? If anything I find that more troubling.
 
Yes, the militarization of police is a serious problem. No, nobody in the comments, last I checked, was insinuating that this means "people should be careful."
 
+Jeremy Dunck I will bet you $1,000 that we will find no evidence that XKEYSCORE and PRISM had anything to do with the police showing up and asking about bombs. Is that sufficient?
 
+Sean Roberts The word you want is "busy-bodies" or possibly "witch hunts" not "militarization". Despite the highly misleading picture accompanying the Atlantic Wire's article, this isn't a story of cops in military armor or with machine guns. This is a story of plainclothes officers armed with handguns driving up and conducting a cursory search after being given consent and then having a conversation.

Yes that's scary, because it happened in the home and the person it happened to isn't the kind of person we expect the police to go talk to without good reason. But it's a different kind of scary than militarization, which is about police in military hardware viewing the populace as an enemy army. (In other words, it's the difference between the inquisition and an invasion)
 
He's probably right that they didn't use the NSA tools... It was probably the "See something, Say something" Orwellian program. McCarthyism lives again. 
 
BTW, for those who +1'd my comment, Declan rightly pointed out that the visit was NOT from a tactical team.  I apologize, that was my mistake.  More sensational reporting from the Atlantic, which I will pretty much never trust again.
 
My friends in government tell me that the scuttlebutt is that these local fusion centers (what this "joint terrorism task force" is) have been a disaster - lots of people with no clear guidance and untrained staff. They apparently have a history of taking publically available information and blowing it out of proportion to justify their jobs' existence. I wouldn't be surprised if there's someone there searching facebook all day and flagging anything he can just to justify his job.
Brian B
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I grew up playing with M50s, M66s and M80s. Therefore it boggles my mind how a stock-looking photograph is enough to infringe on your personal privacy.This isn't a smoking gun by any chance of imagination. What if they were camping in Wisconsin? You can purchase those legally at hundreds of stores across the state. Meanwhile you may need a portable pressure cooker and backpacks to complete the trip in the woods. Does that still qualify to have DHS knocking on your door and asking for a warantless search of your house?

edit: The more I consider it, the more I believe your findings make this situation even worse. And disappointed that a technology journalist doesn't see the massive issues with this. If it was me I would have refused their entry and then made sure the media was there when they showed up with a warrant. 
 
Look, I agree that having LEOs knock on your door is scary, but how is this an infringement of privacy rights? This is routinely what happens in low-income neighborhoods where the cops stop by to "introduce" themselves and ask if they can look around. Or is it suddenly privacy infringement for the police to visit a private home because it's happening on Long Island instead of in Queens?

Cops are scary. Sometimes you need to tell them no. This gets easier with practice.
 
+Daniel Martin Yeah, and the "hey, nice to meet you" snooping cops do in poor neighborhoods is wrong too. The police doing unjustified searches of poor people doesn't make it right OK when they do unjustified searches of middle class people.

The facts remain:

A) Photos of fireworks on the internet are not a crime, and are generally not even worthy as probable cause. Photos of very few things are.

B) The police or whatever they were specifically asked about pressure cookers, which is odd. (Although that may just be in the script now, as these sorts of clowns are generally just that sort of reactive types. No capacity whatsoever for real original or investigative thought.)
 
Thanks for posting that. I was about to do the same. 

So I had thought that a neighbor tipped off the local cops, or the cops found a Facebook post, and both hunches were wrong. It was the (former) employer reviewing search logs stored on the employer's computer. But I was right that it wan't a supersecret NSA "MONITORING MAH SEARCHES" spy program. Too bad +Jeremy Dunck didn't take me up on that $1,000 bet!
 
She posted FIREWORKS, on the 4th OF JULY. That's a pretty pro-America posting there, actually. 
 
+Lee Killough was it her former employer or her husband's? The impression I got from the press release was that it had been her husband's former employer.
 
Sorry, you're right -- the report only implied it was a former employer of someone of the household.
 
What I want to know is whether the Atlantic just copied the woman's blog without bothering to verify or look for additional details because they were lazy, or if they deliberately went with it (and that photograph) because they are desperate to spread scare stories, because their publication is not economically viable. Laziness or mendacity; which could it be?
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