News police at Wired jump into action

Wired magazine’s news editor Kevin Poulsen and senior writer David Kravets followed up on yesterday’s pressure cooker story and are admonishing everyone else who ran with it to now focus on the “real news.”

A visit by law enforcement to the Catalano family in Long Island, turns out not to have been triggered by NSA mass surveillance.

[T]he local police department that actually visited Catalano’s husband finally explained themselves, and it turns out the story is more about a dispute with the husband’s former employer than rampant secret police surveillance. Here’s the statement from the Suffolk County Police Department:

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.’

After interviewing the company representatives, Suffolk County Police Detectives visited the subject’s home to ask about the suspicious internet searches. The incident was investigated by Suffolk County Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Detectives and was determined to be non-criminal in nature.

Catalano did not respond to repeated inquiries via e-mail and Twitter for this story, and her husband did not respond to a message sent through LinkedIn. But Catalano’s Twitter timeline indicates that her husband lost his job in May.

At a time where we’re treated almost daily to new revelations about covert government surveillance, it’s easy to see why this story found traction. But bogus claims of secret data mining and “profiling” detract from the real news. So please let’s stop.

OK. So this turns out not to be a story about mass surveillance — at least not the kind in which the NSA engages. But maybe Wired should exercise a bit of caution before they start preaching to everyone about what constitutes the “real news.”

Firstly, by referring to “bogus claims of secret data mining and ‘profiling'” Wired is insinuating that Catalano’s story was fabricated. She now says: “We found out through the Suffolk Police Department that the [web] searches involved also things my husband looked up at his old job. We were not made aware of this at the time of questioning and were led to believe it was solely from searches from within our house.”

Wired says Catalano did not respond to repeated inquiries via e-mail and Twitter, but did they make any attempt to contact her husband’s former employer?

There is a story here and it sounds like it involves a different kind of mass surveillance. Instead of it directly involving the NSA, this is about Americans spying on each other, much like informants providing tips to the secret police in East Germany.

Did Catalano’s husband’s former employer actually suspect he might be a terrorist? More likely, they were trying to preempt an unfair dismissal lawsuit and thought they could dig some “dirt” out of his browser history. Armed with “suspicious” searches, they knew that if they were to pass these “tips” to law enforcement that there isn’t a single police department in America that will blow off a warning about terrorism — however flimsy that warning might be.

I’m just guessing how this played out. Wired on the other hand might have looked into this angle of the story before deciding that there was no story.

Some people might think that a society in which citizens never hesitate to alert the authorities about suspicious activity is a society in which everyone who is law-abiding can feel safe. This could be a kind of civic-mindedness in which we all look out for one another. But reasonable caution can slide into paranoia and the powers of the state allowed to expand as individuals are encouraged to distrust each other.

When a government insists on promoting fear, we should indeed be afraid — of the government.

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