Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


So, apparently, the Nassau County (New York) Police have a “joint terrorism task force”, and they can monitor residents’ web searches in more or less real time. And they paid a visit to a family that had searched for pressure cookers and backpacks online, as well as having revealed interest in news about the Boston bombing. I’m not an expert, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to go telling everyone that law enforcement is monitoring the contents of web activity. Aside from the fact that the monitoring itself is probably illegal, revealing operational capabilities tends to get people stranded in the holding area of foreign airports, where Americans get stabbed in the back. And it doesn’t matter what your motivations were for revealing the information. (Pressure cookers? Really? The whole reason for using pressure cookers to make bombs is that there are millions of them around, a very large fraction of which will likely never be used to kill or maim civilians. And backpacks.)

The next Edward Snowden should avoid contacting a journalist directly. Instead, he can just tip off local law enforcement to an important national security journalist’s involvement in some nefarious plot, and then feed them with the appropriate keywords that he’s trying to communicate. He’ll probably get a medal.

The story, as reported by the aspiring terrorist herself, has some delightful details that sound like they came from Monty Python:

Meanwhile, they 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.

Again, I’m no expert on interrogation, but I’m just going to hazard a guess that “Can you make a bomb with that?” is not the sort of question that frequently leads to actionable intelligence.

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