The perils of shopping online in America today

Michele Catalano tells a story that is emblematic of the far reach of America’s national security state, the stupidity by which it is guided, and the incompetence with which it executes its operations.

In a country where we now know nothing is concealed from the NSA’s all-seeing, never-blinking eye, it’s easy to imagine that with hair-trigger sensitivity the counter-terrorism apparatus can now swing into action at an instant, stamping out any emerging threat.

Inspired by the Tsarnaev brothers, the next miscreant goes online in search of some instruments of death, but before he’s had time to weigh up merits of Fargo versus Presto pressure cookers, law enforcement pounces and nips another plot in the bud — just another day in the relentless effort to keep America safe. Or not.

The Catalano family in Long Island fit the profile. Anyone interested in buying a pressure cooker and a backpack could surely be up to no good and the police were not going to take any chances.

How were the police provided with information about this particular American family’s web-browsing habits? We can only wait to see whether Gen Alexander or any of his cohorts at the NSA are kind enough to volunteer an answer.

Since Catalano recounted her story on Medium earlier today, it’s been picked up by The Guardian and the Atlantic. Naturally, this is being viewed as evidence that in America today, even the most innocent behavior can come under the scrutiny of the state. But a detail that seems just as important is this: the supposedly suspicious behavior that led to this police investigation occurred weeks before the police showed up.

This detail more than anything else perfectly illustrates the way in which excessive state power works: not only is it excessively intrusive but it is equally incompetent. The larger organizations become, the more inefficient they become.

The raison d’être of the national security state is not its claimed desire to “keep Americans safe” — it is self-perpetuation and growth. Don’t picture Minority Report – picture Brazil

Michele Catalano writes: It was a confluence of magnificent proportions that led six agents from the joint terrorism task force to knock on my door Wednesday morning. Little did we know our seemingly innocent, if curious to a fault, Googling of certain things was creating a perfect storm of terrorism profiling. Because somewhere out there, someone was watching. Someone whose job it is to piece together the things people do on the internet raised the red flag when they saw our search history.

Most of it was innocent enough. I had researched pressure cookers. My husband was looking for a backpack. And maybe in another time those two things together would have seemed innocuous, but we are in “these times” now. And in these times, when things like the Boston bombing happen, you spend a lot of time on the internet reading about it and, if you are my exceedingly curious news junkie of a twenty-year-old son, you click a lot of links when you read the myriad of stories. You might just read a CNN piece about how bomb making instructions are readily available on the internet and you will in all probability, if you are that kid, click the link provided.

Which might not raise any red flags. Because who wasn’t reading those stories? Who wasn’t clicking those links? But my son’s reading habits combined with my search for a pressure cooker and my husband’s search for a backpack set off an alarm of sorts at the joint terrorism task force headquarters.

That’s how I imagine it played out, anyhow. Lots of bells and whistles and a crowd of task force workers huddled around a computer screen looking at our Google history.

This was weeks ago. I don’t know what took them so long to get here. Maybe they were waiting for some other devious Google search to show up but “what the hell do I do with quinoa” and “Is A-Rod suspended yet” didn’t fit into the equation so they just moved in based on those older searches. [Continue reading…]

President Obama would have us believe that the Boston bombing does not demonstrate the limitations of mass surveillance but on the contrary that the NSA demonstrated its value after the bombing by ruling out the existence of a wider plot.

Or, to put it another way and extend this overused metaphor once more: the NSA’s greatest talent is not its ability to find needles in haystacks but in finding hay in haystacks.

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3 thoughts on “The perils of shopping online in America today

  1. delia ruhe

    I’ve always hated the physical activity called shopping, so I’m a fanatical online consumer. My shopping record must take up a couple of gigabytes in the NSA data storage facilities — and my Amazon book purchases since 9/11 could probably land me in jail. I wonder if anyone else worries about such things . . .

  2. Mustafa

    To Americans who have the ability, I say LEAVE. You don’t have to live in a nation that is transforming into something really ugly. And no, the rest of the world just isn’t becoming a militarized national security state—that’s just America, and Israel. I now live in Malaysia and there’s just no police presence here—it’s great.

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