There’s a fine line separating “reasonable caution” from “unreasonable paranoia” — unless you’re on the Internet, in which case paranoia is pretty much identical to reasonable caution — especially where our paranoid national-security apparatus is concerned.
The most recent example of this comes from Courthouse News, which tells of a former federal contractor in Alexandria, Va., who is suing a wide variety of federal officials after a Google auto-complete suggestion unfairly made him a national-security suspect. According to a complaint filed by former federal contractor Jeffrey Kantor:
"In October of 2009, Kantor used the search engine Google to try to find, 'How do I build a radio-controlled airplane …. He ran this search a couple weeks before the birthday of his son with the thought of building one together as a birthday present. After typing, 'how do I build a radio controlled', Google auto-completed his search to, 'how do I build a radio controlled bomb.'"
But even if the government is making a point of monitoring all of our online communications, surely they know better than to think one errant click on a Google auto-complete makes one a terrorist threat, right?
Ha ha, no. Kantor says he was soon visited by federal investigators who played out “good cop/bad cop” routines with him (with the “bad cop” tossing anti-Semitic slurs at Kantor), and then, according the the court complaint, this happened:
"Kantor's coworkers at the Army, including Northrop Grumman contractors Quem Lumi, Stephanie Buchner and Mike Steinbeck, would repeat back Kantor's private information, including emails, websites he went to, library books he got from the library, conversations he made in his house or in his car, phone calls, information about the contents of his house, and then someone would immediately say that there is a person who dropped dead from hypertension, …. "If Kantor ever got angry after his private information was repeated back (by slamming a cabinet or typing loudly on his computer), the [subcontractor] CRGT and Northrop Grumman employees would tell the same story about how there was a neighbor in their community who seemed like such a nice guy, but then went on a murder suicide … If Mr. Kantor stayed calm after they repeated back his private information, they would instead spend the hour talking about how people drop dead from hypertension. This happened every day for almost three months."
Kantor maintains that these comments were actually veiled threats.
Not the first time
If Kantor’s allegations are true, this wouldn’t be the first time an innocuous Google search resulted in innocent people generated terrifying federal interest. Last summer, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings (caused by a pressure-cooker bomb left in a backpack along a crowded part of the marathon route), a New York couple had members of a “joint terrorism task force” raid their home. Michelle Catalano described what happened when the police came to her house:
[T]hey were peppering my husband with 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? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked. ...
Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb? My husband, ever the oppositional kind, asked them if they themselves weren’t curious as to how a pressure cooker bomb works, if they ever looked it up. Two of them admitted they did.
Turns out Catalano was searching online for pressure cookers (which have legitimate non-terrorist uses -- like, uh, cooking) around the same time her husband was searching for backpacks (ditto). These searches were made on a computer owned by Catalano’s husband’s employer, who apparently checked his employee search logs and then called the cops.
This misunderstanding surely led to some extremely awkward boss/worker discussions in the aftermath of the debacle, though nothing remotely as bad as what Jeffrey Kantor alleges in his lawsuit; neither is Kantor's complaint limited exclusively to the monitoring of employer-owned computers and communication devices. Kantor is being represented by attorney Stephen Swift of Swift & Swift.