During the last four months, we’ve seen a wealth of new information about government surveillance and data collection programs. Back in June, the Guardian published a National Security letter to Verizon; since then, new revelations have come out on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis.
US government agencies are collecting a lot of very detailed information about, well, everyone — so I am left wondering “what kind of information are they collecting about me?”. I think this is a reasonable question to ask: I am a US citizen, I pay taxes that fund government operations, and as far as I am concerned, the government is supposed to be working on my behalf. I think I have a right to know what they’re up to, particularly if it concerns me directly.
In other words, I’d like to know what’s in my file.
Fortunately, our laws provide ways for people to obtain such information. The main mechanisms are the Freedom of Information act (commonly known as FOIA), and for Massachusetts residents, the Massachusetts Public Records Law. I have several requests in progress, and I encourage others to make requests of their own. By sharing our experiences, we can collectively open government, and better understand the implications of these surveillance policies.
My Humble FBI File (which may or may not exist)
I decided to start by requesting my FBI file. The FBI’s web site has a series of pages describing how to make FOIA requests to the agency, including a sample FOIA request letter. I sent a FOIPA request to the FBI’s Winchester, VA office on October 7th, with the following description:
I am requesting a copy of my FBI file, and I have enclosed a completed copy of the Department of Justice Certification of Identity form.
Please search the FBI’s indices to the Central Records System for the information responsive to this request.
The FBI sent a written acknowledgment of my request on October 15,
- Your request has been received at FBI Headquarters for processing
- We are searching the indices of our Central Records System for the information responsive to this request. We will inform you of the results in future correspondence.
- Please check for the status of your FOIPA request at www.fbi.gov/foia.
The FBI sent their final response on October 17th:
Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System. We were unable to identify main file records responsive to the FOIPA. If you have additional information pertaining to the subject that you believe was of investigative interest to the Bureau, please provide us the details and we will conduct an additional search.
In accordance with standard FBI practice and pursuant to FOIA exemption (b)(7)(E)/Privacy Act exemption (j)(2) [5 USC Sec. 552/552a (b)(7)(E)/(j)(2)], this response neither confirms nor denies the existence of your subject’s name on any watch lists.
For your information, Congress excluded three discrete categories of law enforcement and national security records from the requirements of the FOIA. See 5 USC Sec 552(C) (2006 & Supp IV 2010). This response is limited to those records that are subject to the requirements of the FOIA. This is a standard notification that is given to all our requesters and should not e taken as an indication that excluded records do, or do not, exist.
That’s my end result: a negative response, accompanied by a Glomar disclaimer. In other words, “they got nothing”. (Of course, the FBI might have something, but they are not willing to share it with me.)
I don’t know if I should be relieved or worried about this outcome. On one hand, I’m a pretty harmless individual, I’m not a member of any criminal underworld, and I have no reason to think that I’d be a person of interest in an FBI crime investigation. On the other hand, I teach encryption, I advocate for the use of privacy-enhancing technologies, and I participate in the occasional public demonstration. The FBI has a history of targeting activist groups; in today’s climate, it seems like participation in these activities could make me a person of interest.
Or, maybe I’m just asking the wrong government agency.