The defenders of the surveillance state protest that they need to watch everything we do to keep us safe. Here’s what that looks like in practice: a fairly typical American family learns that seemingly innocent interactions with an internet search engine might flag them for a visit from the Overseers.
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 20-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.
What’s verifiable is that at nine o’clock last Wednesday six members of the joint terrorism task force paid a visit to the family home; the wife was at work, the husband and son were at home. The visitors arrived in three black SUVs, parked one behind the husband’s vehicle so he couldn’t move, and spread across the yard covering all exits as they approached the door. Flashing badges, they asked the husband if he had any bombs, and when he demurred they asked whether he had ever searched for how a pressure cooker bomb works. He responded by asking whether they had ever been curious about that and it turned out two of them had looked up the information themselves. They asked to see the son’s room but when they heard he was still asleep they skipped it. After 45 minutes of superficial searching and not very intense questioning they left.
It’s scary enough to think about how pervasive the surveillance is. Emphasizing that is the remark made by the visitors as they left to the effect that their visit was no big deal, they do this kind of thing a hundred times a week.
Surveillance may seem unavoidable and in some situations it is. But we can start with little things that reduce our data leakage. I hope the Catalano family at least switched from Google to DuckDuckGo or StartPage.