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Google ‘pressure cooker,’ get a police visit? Maybe not.

A screenshot of Michele Catalono's Twitter page at 2 p.m. on August 1, shortly after her account went viral. (Twitter)
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The FBI denies a Long Island journalist’s claims that a local Joint Terrorism Task Force visited her house after she searched the terms “backpack” and “pressure cooker” on Google. Now the question is: Who did? And, perhaps more importantly, did it actually have anything to do with Google?

Michele Catalano, a writer for Forbes and the Web site Death and Taxes, set off a blogosphere firestorm on Thursday when she wrote a post on Medium claiming that “six agents from the joint terrorism task force” asked to search her home and questioned her husband about subjects that seemed to correspond to their recent Google searches.

“This is where we are at,” Catalono wrote. “Where you have no expectation of privacy. Where trying to learn how to cook some lentils could possibly land you on a watch list.”

But after reading the questions Catalano says investigators asked her husband, it’s clear that they could come from information that is not Catalano’s search history -- say, an anonymous tip from a jumpy neighbor. (Maybe someone who noted this Facebook picture.) And there’s little to suggest Catalano is on a watch-list or that any terrorism investigators were involved, at all. A spokeswoman for the FBI’s New York field office, out of which the New York and Long Island JTTTs are based, said the investigation was led by the Nassau County Police Department with assistance from the Suffolk County Police Department, and the FBI was not involved.

“They were officers from the Nassau County Police Department who identified themselves as such,” said Kelly Langmesser, the FBI spokeswoman. But mysteriously, neither the Nassau nor Suffolk County Police would confirm their involvement in the investigation Thursday afternoon. An officer from the Nassau County Police repeatedly refused to even give her first name; a Public Information Officer in Suffolk County said she would comment when she had more information.

All of this sounds very shady, but it doesn’t exactly scream of an insidious, privacy-invading terrorism investigation. At least it’s impossible to make that conclusion without more information. As Catalano wrote in her post, the investigators asked her husband pretty innocuous questions:

Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? … Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb?

There is also, it’s worth remembering, a specific legal procedure for both the FBI and local police who want to obtain Google data, a topic Google has been very open about:

The government needs legal process—such as a subpoena, court order or search warrant—to force Google to disclose user information. Exceptions can be made in certain emergency cases, though even then the government can't force Google to disclose …
Respect for the privacy and security of data you store with Google underpins our approach to complying with these legal requests. When we receive such a request, our team reviews the request to make sure it satisfies legal requirements and Google's policies. Generally speaking, for us to comply, the request must be made in writing, signed by an authorized official of the requesting agency and issued under an appropriate law.

According to Google’s annual Transparency Report, the company received 8,438 such requests in the United States last year -- the most of any other country it tracks. Police can also bypass Google and obtain search data through other means from users who don't use encrypted (https) search.

Update: A statement from the Suffolk County Police has resolved the mystery.