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Careful what you search for on the Internet

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Watchdog,Drones,Terrorism,Constitutionality,Islamic Jihad

If you ever wanted a visit from a team of federal anti-terrorism operatives, here's how to make it happen.

Step one: Look up information on the Internet about backpacks.

Step two: Google "pressure cookers."

Step three: Sit back and wait for the pounding on your door.

From the Atlantic Wire comes a terrifying tale about a couple on Long Island who got a visit from a six-member "joint terrorism task force" after they entered those magic words into a search engine.

Michele Catalano was looking up prices of pressure cookers, while her husband was searching for the best deal on a new backpack.

Somewhere within the U.S. surveillance network, red flags went up.

Michele Catalano described the events on her blog:

"Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked ...

"... I felt a sense of creeping dread take over. What else had I looked up? What kind of searches did I do that alone seemed innocent enough but put together could make someone suspicious? Were they judging me because my house was a mess (Oh my god, the joint terrorism task force was in my house and there were dirty dishes in my sink!).

"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.

"All I know is if I'm going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I'm not doing it online.

I'm scared. And not of the right things."

The story comes hot on the heels of revelations made by The Guardian July 31 (using more information passed along by NSA leaker Edward Snowden) about how the NSA can use a formerly top secret program called XKeyscore to track Internet searches and pinpoint their origins.

A statement from the Suffolk County (NY) Police Department said the search was the result of a tip, not the result of government surveillance:

"Suffolk County Criminal Intelligence Detectives received a tip from a Bay Shore based computer company regarding suspicious computer searches conducted by a recently released employee. The former employee's computer searches took place on this employee's workplace computer. On that computer, the employee searched the terms 'pressure cooker bombs' and 'backpacks.'"

Writing at Forbes.com, Kashmir Hill said the whole incident seems to indicate how paranoid our society is becoming, partially because of the revelations of electronic government spying.

"This whole story is one big paranoia pressure cooker," Hill said. "Catalano thinking the feds were watching her searches, the employee assuming the searches were worth reporting to police, and news sources breathlessly repeating Catalano's claims without doing any reporting."

Eric Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org, which is affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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