The Things You Learn When You Send A Freedom Of Information Act Request About What The Gov't Knows About You

from the evil-criminal-edition dept

I’ve been meaning to post this story for a little while, but am finally getting around to it. On a whim, a woman decided to send off some Freedom of Information Act requests to various government agencies to see if they had any information about her. She said she had basically forgotten about the whole thing… until, months later, the FBI sent her a giant package… containing a 436-page report on her that she had no idea existed. What she discovered was that, about a decade ago, the FBI had spent five days following her and some of her friends around, all because they were involved in planning and organizing a small local protest (she doesn’t explain what the protest was about, other than to say it really wasn’t that big of a deal). Either way, the FBI spent five days (a few days before, the day of and the day after the protest) following her and her friends and recording all of their activities. The actual report is incredibly mundane:

At times, the file details seem particularly ridiculous:
As she says, “As you can see, I pose a clear and present danger to society. I pick up other people’s trash and put it in the proper bins.” The entire file is apparently similarly pointless information about her activities. She sounds mildly embarrassed that she didn’t spot the fact that she was being followed, but if you’re not expecting that you’re being followed — and being followed by pros — it’s unlikely that you’d notice. The thing that’s really amazing is that it makes you wonder just how much time and resources are being wasted here. I recognize that it’s important for law enforcement to be on top of various activities, but it’s hard not to wonder if this isn’t overkill. She also notes that, for all of the time and effort put into following her around, they got a lot of the rather basic facts wrong:

I am repeatedly identified as a member of a different, more mainstream liberal activist group which I was not only not a part of, but actually fought with on countless occasions. To somehow not know that I detested this group of people was a colossal failure of intelligence-gathering. Hopefully the FBI has not gotten any better at figuring out who is a part of what, and that this has worked to the detriment of their surveillance of other activists. I am also repeatedly identified as being a part of campaigns that I was never involved with, or didn’t even know about, including protests in other cities. Maybe the FBI assumes every protester-type attends all other activist meetings and protests, like we’re just one big faceless monolith. “Oh, hey, you’re into this topic? Well, then, you’re probably into this topic, right? You’re all pinkos to us.”

In taking a general survey of all area activists, the files keep trying to draw non-existant connections between the most mainstream groups/people and the most radical, as though one was a front for the other. There are a few flyers from local events that have nothing to do with our campaign, including one posted to advertise a lefty discussion group at the university library. The FBI mentions that activists may be planning “direct action” at their meetings, which the document’s author clarifies means “illegal acts.” “Direct action” was then, and I’d say now, a term used to talk about civil disobedience and intentional arrests. While such things are illegal actions, the tone and context in these FBI files makes it sound like protesters got together and planned how to fly airplanes into buildings or something.

When you read stuff like this, and then think back to the various cases we’ve seen of the FBI manufacturing their own terrorist plots, it really makes you wonder if the money we’re spending on law enforcement for these kinds of things is money well spent… or if the FBI really just has way too much time (and money) on their hands.

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Comments on “The Things You Learn When You Send A Freedom Of Information Act Request About What The Gov't Knows About You”

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79 Comments
Ima Fish (profile) says:

think back to the various cases we’ve seen of the FBI manufacturing their own terrorist plots, it really makes you wonder if the money we’re spending on law enforcement for these kinds of things is money well spent

Think about it. If the government doesn’t spend money setting up fake terrorist acts and then stopping those fake terrorist acts, who will?

Exactly.

Robert (profile) says:

what if everyone does the same?

Imagine if even 10% of the population (assuming that many are awake) filed FOIA’s for info on themselves. I wonder if that would send a message or at least hinder some of their surveillance?

Or would it just be considered abuse of the FOIA and it will be amended, silently, so no one can file it without special permission (meaning you can’t file it on yourself only on companies or if you’re a journalist)?

MikeC (profile) says:

Gotta look at this from the point of the FBI Agents

Do you think after the first 10 minutes that the FBI agents wanted to keep doing this for 5 days ??? They are like any other workers.. They filled out a report because they were told too. Hopefully we hire some smart folks to be FBI agents, they knew right away this was a waste of time I bet. How much other surveillance and such do you think is just write something down so you can tell your boss agent that you did it, so he can tell his boss it was done. $$$ down the drain .. I mean here in my hometown, if you don’t buy a dog license and don’t call in to tell them the dog is dead, they send 2 (not 1 but 2) animal control agents to your house to check if you have a dog that is not licensed. But we still have drug dealers and drive by shootings, just no unlicensed dogs. What a colossal waste of dollars by our bureaucratic entities in most cases.

Now if there was a real threat they hopefully would have recognized it and put the proper effort into it. But this way they got 5 days of per-diem and mostly free time out of the office, didn’t have a choice so they filled out paperwork to make it look like they were doing something besides drinking coffee and bitching about what a stupid assignment this was.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

She has some links to her activism sites and also some tshirts about respecting sex workers rights.

Her flickr page contains lots of beautiful photos of Panama but nothing that’s NSFW.

If you were expecting something like her in a bikini (she is attractive) you’d be disappointed, at least at a first glance I don’t see that.

Just a blog, nothing “exciting” from a first quick glance.

Rekrul says:

In taking a general survey of all area activists, the files keep trying to draw non-existant connections between the most mainstream groups/people and the most radical, as though one was a front for the other.

Generally, law enforcement doesn’t look for evidence to arrive at the truth. First they come up with the conclusion they like best, then they spend the majority of their time trying to prove that conclusion.

Anonymous Coward says:

Trash or not

After they’ve put agents on surveillance, it’d only be proper to assume the agents will do full job, no? An agent should assume if they’ve been given an assignment, there’s some rationale for it.

In light of that, all the mundane things could surely be useful if that person had turned out to be talking to Truly Evil Terrorists, right?

Imagine the response the other way: “So, there were agents following her for 5 days, and didn’t notice she put a bomb in a trash can? How incompetent is the FBI?”

If you want to mock them, mock the fact that they choose unimportant targets, not that they did a complete investigation after deciding on the target.

ChrisB (profile) says:

Trash or not

I agree. It is tough to determine you are wasting your time before you actually waste your time.

The thing is, it is always harder (impossible?) to prove a negative than a positive. If they caught her doing something illegal, the surveillance would be over. But to definitively rule out she isn’t doing illegal things … that would take forever. The best you can do is watch long enough to reasonably conclude she isn’t likely to do illegal things.

Anonymous Coward says:

They are tracking porn? I had a local newspaper article about some animal rights activists that ‘disapeared’ in the middle of the night. Turns out it was the FBI and the agent admitted just clicking on some sites automatically started tracking; anarchist.com was one. So if you wanted to know more out of curiousity – you raised a flag to the FBI.

It’s pretty clear that the Patriot Act has resulted in a far greater % of resources spent on domestic survailance than any foriegn threat.

I would be surprised if even 10% of the population felt represented in Washington DC. Maybe they have a reason to be parnoid. It’s just not a foriegn threat.

Pickle Monger (profile) says:

The second most obvious conclusion...

There’s another possibility. This could’ve been a training mission. Obviously, new agents aren’t sent to tail suspected terrorists right away. The very fact that they got details wrong yet suspected that this is a part of a much bigger national movement suggests younger overeager agents. Sort of like new doctors who tend to find unusual, exotic diseases in patients with a simple cold.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re:

Full of links to her porn sites. Basically, it’s her “public” front to up sell you to her porn experience. Not cool at all.

I see a LOT of very serious posts on this blog – and one short menu halfway down the sidebar with links to her porn sites (underneath links to her activism sites, with nothing drawing any special attention to it)

Seems like you are desperate to discredit this woman for some reason…

TOG says:

Don't rag on the FBI agents; they're just doing their jobs

Seriously, the agents were told to watch this person and gather evidence to see if any further suveillance was necessary. They spent 5 days and that was it. Really not a lot of resources spent. Policing society is important to the maintenance of that society. How does the FBI know, without looking into this person, whether or not she might turn into the next Timothy McVeigh? They don’t. Someone brought this individual to the attention of law enforcement and the FBI did its job: investigate, and when they see nothing wrong, stop investigating.

Now, go get a life and worry about more important things than what’s in a government file about you.

MrWilson says:

Re:

I am aware of you and who you are (I have my contacts in the FBI writing down what boring things you’re doing right now). And everyone should believe what I say about you because I said I know you. So I’ll make subtle, implied accusations of bad character against you, but I’ll refuse to mention any proof of this out of my own stated goodwill for wanting Mike not to get sued for libel – for all the good that would do. That should go over well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Wow, these lawyers seem to know everyone whenever convenient. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen such an unlikely claim made by dedicated (techdirt and other) trolls.

I’m not defending this woman, I don’t really think we have enough information at this point to say one way or another beyond her single side of the story, and her side of the story makes me wonder, but based on this post and another you made it sounds like you are a frequent techdirt troll, the kind who generally makes things up as you go.

It’s unlikely that you know this person personally, the chances of some random frequent techdirt troll just so happening to know this specific person (not to mention every person) when convenient are very small.

In fact, I bet if Mike checked your hostmask and compares it to this woman’s home location it probably originates from a totally different location (though you could be using a proxy).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

It should also be noted that anything she says as a source of information (ie: regarding otherwise un – sourced facts and personal experience) carries more weight than anything you say, because she is non-anonymous and you are anonymous. She is putting her reputation on the line and we can actually verify her history and get information about her and scrutinize her consistency and criticize her to a greater degree, whereas you are just an anonymous person. Who should we believe, her with known identity, or an anonymous person with no known identity.

Not that there is anything wrong with being anonymous, there is nothing wrong with being anonymous and there is nothing wrong with being an anonymous source of information, just that statements of otherwise un – sourced fact and personal experience don’t hold as much weight.

and secondarily known sources also carry more weight than a purely anonymous source.

For instance Mike Masnick is a known source and if someone he knows and trusts tells him something and Mike puts it on techdirt with his identity as Mike Masnick and he conceals the identity of the original sources and vouches for the source’s authenticity and the information’s validity himself, that would carry more weight than if some anonymous commenter did something similar.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Willy Picton

I guess after introducing herself as a sex worker and a pornographer that sent you looking for the links rather than following her blogging.

So, in that sense, what did you expect. Even activists have to earn a living so why not do what you do best, in her case, (a) porn and (b) blog intelligently about what is, after all a fairly serious issue.

Take, for example, the investigation into the disappearing women off the Downtown East Side stroll of Vancouver and ignored the fact that a serial killer was at work.

Feel free to follow the link below to get more information about why, in many ways, he was so successful.

http://www.torontosun.com/2012/02/27/pickton-inquiry-hears-of-police-indifference-to-sex-worker

The woman whose blog we’re directed to and who is so passionate about protecting the rights of sex trade workers has a point, you know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Willy Picton

“I guess after introducing herself as a sex worker and a pornographer that sent you looking for the links rather than following her blogging.

No, I just looked at the linked sites on her page, about half way down the article Mike pointed to. I didn’t have to go far to find porn.

For her comments, I would say that the Picton case has been picked on (pun intended) over and over already, and she didn’t really add anything that hasn’t already been out there hundreds of times over.

I don’t agree or disagree with her, I find only that it’s a bit weird to see Mike linking directly to porn people.

Chargone (profile) says:

Re:

and yet the FBI still has time to somehow be screwing up here in NZ too…

(they’re partly responsible for the taps in the exchanges, of course there’s the whole megaupload thing. can’t remember if the older stuff was them or the CIA. either way Someone freaked out and, in a classic case of shooting the messenger, stripped both the USA and NZ of some cheap and advanced military hardware…

seriously, the only reason that (to the best of my knowledge) US intelligence agencies aren’t hated more here is that, unlike the French, they’ve not killed anyone (that the public know of) here yet…

but no one with a clue has any faith in their ability to not screw us over for no good reason.

(then there’s NZ’s equivalents… which you basically never hear of, but we do have them… it’s a heck of a lot more serious if they show up than if the FBI does, that’s for sure. or, at least, it’s About something more serious.)

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