Be Careful What You Google

This would be disturbing if it wasn’t so farcical.

Be careful what you Google. That was the clear message after a New York couple received an unwelcome visit from counterterrorism authorities.

Blogger and journalist Michele Catalano was Googling pressure cookers. Yep. Pressure cookers. She wanted a pressure cooker to (wait for it) cook quinoa. For those who might not know what that it is, Quinoa is a South American grain you can purchase in a health food shop. It was a harmless Google search.

Next, her husband was using the same computer to search for backpacks. He needed a backpack. Don’t we all from time to time. Again it was a harmless Google search.

The couple’s 20 year old son was also on the computer. After reading about the Boston bombings he was clicking on links about home-made bombs. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was harmless curiosity.

But unfortunately there is no such thing as harmless anything any more. Not in the days of terrorism and counter terrorism. And especially not if it leads to authorities concluding that someone might be trying to manufacture a home made bomb.

Now apparently unbeknown to the Catalanos someone, somewhere in authority was putting all of this Google searching together and came to the conclusion that this family represented enough of a threat to warrant a visit.

Around 9 am one morning the family answered a knock on the front door. We are talking black ops. Six men in three black SUVs pulled up and surrounded the house.

Like I said they knocked. This time. As opposed to kicking the door down. Michele’s husband let them in. They searched and after not a long time they left.. Clearly convinced that the couple’s home was one of 99 percent of cases where there was no threat.

And that was that. Except it wasn’t. Because a lot of people are now asking how does the Government know what people are Googling?

It has already been pointed out elsewhere, that this question suddenly has great relevance given the case of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. One of the disclosures revealed by Snowden was details of an American intelligence programme that monitors internet activity.

Michele Catalano has since learned that authorities also monitored topics her husband  looked at on his work computer.

She has no idea which counterterrorism group visited her home. They apparently did not identify themselves.

The U.S. website Atlantic Wire tried to get to the bottom of who these spooks might have been without any success. They were not the FBI or the local police.

One thing’s for sure they  were not foodies. They had no idea what Quinoa was.

WTF

This is a story you are not going to believe.

It concerns an 86 year old retired senior American corporate executive called James Prigoff.

Mr Prigoff is a with it sort of guy with impressive credentials. He was the former president of a division of Levi Strauss the jeans manufacturer and previously the senior vice president of the Sara Lee Corporation in Chicago. Mr Prigoff also happens to be a professional photographer. In fact, he has been a photographer for most of his life. His speciality is photographing murals, graffiti art, and other pieces of community public art. He’s also co-authored three books based on the many photographs he has taken, one of which, Spraycan Art, sold more than 200,000 copies. His photographs have appeared in many other publications and his photography has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and in many other galleries. Mr Prigoff has also given lectures on photography and public art in museums, universities, and venues worldwide. He knows his stuff.

It’s a lifestyle he clearly loves but it’s one that got him into serious trouble.

Trouble that started when he attempted to photograph the “Rainbow Swash” outside Boston in 2004.

For those of you who may not know, the Rainbow Swash is an iconic piece of public art painted in 1971 on the circumference of a 140-foot or 45 metre high liquefied natural gas storage tank and repainted in 1992. It is actually one of the largest copyrighted pieces of art in the world. The original artist was Korita Kent.

Now how could doing that get Mr Prigoff into so much trouble you might ask?

Here’s how.

Mr Prigoff went to Dorchester, Massachusetts., to photograph the storage tank. But before he could take his photograph, he was confronted by two security guards who came through their gate and told him he couldn’t take pictures because the tank was on private property.

When he pointed out that he was taking his photographs in a public place well outside the fenced area, and was not on private property – they insisted he leave.

Mr Prigoff not wanting to cause offence or confrontation did what he was asked. That should have been the end of the matter.But it wasn’t.

A few months later, Mr Prigoff discovered a business card on the front door of his home in Sacramento from someone called Agent A. Ayaz of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, asking Mr Prigoff to call him.

In fact one of Mr Prigoff’s neighbours, an elderly woman, later told him that two men wearing suits had come to her door to ask her about her neighbour.

Armed with this information, James Prigoff did what most curious people might do if they found themselves in that situation.

He called Agent Ayaz.

What followed was a very strange conversation. Agent Ayaz asked Mr Prigoff if he had been in Boston recently. It was at that moment that it suddenly dawned on him why they might be asking those kinds of questions.

Mr Prigoff realized that the security guards at the Rainbow Swash site must have taken down the car license plate number of his rental and reported him to a law enforcement agency.

There could be no other possible explanation.Mr Prigoff never gave the security guards any information about himself, so clearly he must have been traced across country through his rental car record.

But why would they bother? Well the answer is frighteningly simple even if it makes no sense.

Even though James Prigoff might have been a professional photographer taking a photo of a well-known Boston landmark according to the Joint Terrorism Task force what he was doing was considered to be engaging in suspicious terrorist activity.

Mr Prigoff said : ” I lived through the McCarthy era, so I know how false accusations, surveillance, and keeping files on innocent people can destroy their careers and lives. I am deeply troubled that the Government may be recreating that same climate of false accusation and fear today.”

James Prigoff aged 86 says photography is an important part of his life, and what’s more he plans to keep photographing public art and public places – like he has been doing for the past 69 years.

He can’t understand why his legitimate artistic pursuits landed him on a national database potentially linking him to “terrorist” activities”

He says there is no reason for it. He is absolutely right about that.