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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Activist Requests Her FBI File, Learns What Color Hat She Was Wearing When She Went to See "Lord of the Rings"

Posted by on Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 11:58 AM

Last year, a blogger, activist, and "amateur pornographer" named Furry Girl requested her FBI file on a lark. Last month, she got it and posted some of its highlights online.

Among other details, Furry Girl learned that she and a few others were followed for several days several years ago while they planned and participated in a small, legal protest. (She doesn't specify what it was about—being an amateur pornographer, she's sensitive about her whereabouts and activities—saying "It was the sort of thing activists do every month all around the world.")

The 436-page file, which was begun in 2002, notes that she and her cohort neither planned to nor engaged in any illegal behavior—besides a little dumpster diving—but the FBI kept following them anyway:

It's the surveillance detail where things get funny and weird. Eleven or twelve of us were followed by a group of 3-6 FBI agents over the course of five days, and there was often a detail sitting outside of my apartment, totally unbeknownst to me. (I feel like a total chump that I didn't notice that I was being followed and photographed during this time.) I had never read law enforcement surveillance logs before, so it was interesting to comb through the pages.

The file notes, for example, that one day she left the house wearing an orange cap, kissed somebody, got in a car with some friends, and went to see Lord of the Rings. Then she and her friends left the movie theater while agents "attempted" to photograph them, went to the store, got a case of beer, went to someone's house, and other boring stuff that people do.

I've written before about not-dangerous folks being surveilled by federal and local law-enforcement agents for peacefully and lawfully exercising their First Amendement rights: making art, throwing parties, expressing dissident political opinions, being involved in protests, and... um... writing for The Stranger about people involved in protests.

So what's the big deal? Most of us have nothing to hide, right? So why not let cops and FBI agents take our photos when we're not looking, sniff through our underwear drawers, and write 436-page reports about it?

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Michael German, a longtime FBI agent who was recently hired by the ACLU to work on the overreaching surveillance culture in both local and federal law-enforcement agencies that has grown since the WTO protests in Seattle—and went buck-wild after 9/11 and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security made lots of money available for toys and investigations.

When I asked why ballooning domestic surveillance matters, German identified several harms:

1. It squanders law-enforcement resources (money and manpower) on law-abiding citizens instead of focusing on actual criminal activity. "We want law enforcement to act on actual threats to public safety," he said, "not potential future threats. We’re all a potential future threat."

2. Law-enforcement agencies are rewarded with grants for rooting out "domestic terrorists," and so have a perverse incentive to squander resources so they can get more (taxpayer) money to squander.

3. It flirts with violating—or outright violates—the first and fourth amendments to the constitution (freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, respectively).

4. It has a chilling effect on free speech. If people know that peacefully and legally expressing their political opinions could result in increased scrutiny from law enforcement, people are less likely to exercise those freedoms—and a society that lets those freedoms atrophy is a society in serious trouble.

5. By creating a paper trail of (spurious) suspicion, law-enforcement agencies can inadvertently cost people apartments, jobs, and other collateral damages. "If a police officer conducts an aggressive investigation," German said, "and he starts interviewing your boss or your landlord and that damages your reputation and you get fired or you don’t get approved for that apartment or that loan, who’s responsible? ...some people will think 'if they wrote it down, it must be true.' It gives credibility to information where none is deserved."

6. It fosters an adversarial relationship between cops and the communities they work in, which is bad for everyone. For evidence, German says, we can just look to history: Over the years, prejudice of all kinds—racism, homophobia, xenophobia—has hurt cops' abilities to help and protect their communities, which hurts those communities in turn.

You can't earn the trust of your beat when you walk through it like a prison guard.

"Furry Girl" got ahold of her file by just filling out this web form and mailing it to the FBI.

Let's all try it! Send me what you find (it may take a couple of months) and I'll throw it on Slog, your anonymity protected if you prefer.

That way your friends and family won't know what you've been up to—even if the FBI does.


Comments (35) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
schmacky 1
Thing is, if they haven't started a file on me, won't they start one if I ask about it?
Posted by schmacky on February 9, 2012 at 12:04 PM · Report this
bgk 2
I cannot wait to see what is in my FBI file :)
Posted by bgk on February 9, 2012 at 12:08 PM · Report this
Better yet, just post your activities online, like on FB or G+, in which case, when you get your files, you can read your social website history.
Posted by Howler on February 9, 2012 at 12:12 PM · Report this
seatackled 4

Wasn't there a first season SNL skit like that? Garrett Morris goes into the FBI office and asks about his file, Chevy Chase appears to be a bumbling idiot and can't find it and keeps asking for details of his activities, and after the Morris character leaves, the Chase character gets on the phone and orders a file to be started.
Posted by seatackled on February 9, 2012 at 12:14 PM · Report this
Good lord, Furry Girl is wonderful. "A Good Time Not Yet Had By All" is the finest personal motto I've ever seen.

I know there's a file on me - as a kid I refused to register for the draft so they sent letter after letter telling me so. Could be fun to see what's in it, I suppose: "disappointed several sex partners during Summer 2004", etc.
Posted by gloomy gus on February 9, 2012 at 12:15 PM · Report this
Yes, I'm fairly sure there's no FBI file on me, but I would totally be afraid to ask about it. No surer way to get them to notice you!!
Posted by MLM on February 9, 2012 at 12:17 PM · Report this
Helix 7
I want to check just to see if they've bothered spending money on me :D I guess I was the head of an Amnesty International chapter for awhile, they're pretty terrorist-y dontchaknow.
Posted by Helix on February 9, 2012 at 12:21 PM · Report this
Original Andrew 8
9/11 officially repealed the sham KKKonstitution.

Terrah terrah terrah!! Boo!!!!
Posted by Original Andrew on February 9, 2012 at 12:22 PM · Report this
Now *that* is a troll face if I ever saw one.
Posted by suddenlyorcas on February 9, 2012 at 12:23 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 10

One good thing about FBI surveillance is that they can't run you off a road in New Mexico and bury the bodies without someone knowing about it.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on February 9, 2012 at 12:31 PM · Report this
For years I've been saying I need to do a FOIA request, if only to find out how many Vietnam War petitions I signed and how many marches/protests/moratoria I attended.

Most of all, I want to know if they identified me in the photo of a building takeover at my college that appeared in Newsweek in 1969. I recognize myself (and a few others) in it, but I do wonder whether the Feds do as well.

Thanks for the link to autogenerated forms!

PS. All those FOIA requests could be a boon to the Postal Service...
Posted by N in Seattle on February 9, 2012 at 12:55 PM · Report this
Teslick 12
"We want law enforcement to act on actual threats to public safety," he said, "not potential future threats. We’re all a potential future threat."
Not to defend these practices, but when is that line crossed? Recall all the screaming after 9/11 about the failure of law enforcement to "connect the dots". A lot of that criticism came from Democrats looking to score points (just as Republicans were trying to deflect blame back to Clinton). Neither side should be outraged to see surveillance run amok.
Posted by Teslick on February 9, 2012 at 12:56 PM · Report this
Fnarf 13
Printed and filled out; I'll pop 'em in the mail on my lunch break. I'm curious to see if they know about my thirty-year career in Al Qaeda or not.
Posted by Fnarf on February 9, 2012 at 1:06 PM · Report this

Should I tell them about how you were often seen snooping around the site of the Cocoanut Grove fire?
Posted by N in Seattle on February 9, 2012 at 1:10 PM · Report this
Am I the only one who wonders if the fact that she was an "amateur pornographer" may not have been a coincidence? It's pretty easy to imagine some creep of an agent deciding that he had to look at absolutely EVERYTHING she was doing. I wouldn't be surprised if there are a whole lot of pervy guys working for the FBI, CIA, CSIS, etc.
Posted by teamcanada on February 9, 2012 at 1:15 PM · Report this
furrygirl 16
@5: The "good time" bit is not a line of my own crafting, it's from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, used to describe the queer hustler character.
Posted by furrygirl on February 9, 2012 at 1:21 PM · Report this
thanks Brendan... looking forward to some good reading!
Posted by stu ungar on February 9, 2012 at 1:27 PM · Report this
furrygirl 18
@15 I was not a sex worker at the time, and I was only one of a dozen people being followed, none of whom were sex workers either. It actually annoys the shit out of me that some people assume I was followed based on silly horny agents trying to spy on a slutty chick. That's totally dismissing the serious political context in favor of turning it into a joke about sluts and sex. The state doesn't spy on protesters in hopes of maybe catching a nip slip. Plus, there are plenty of female activists around the country who are way more attractive than me, so if "spying on hot chicks" was the FBI's mission, they totally botched it.

Also, I don't know if I can be called an amateur pornographer when I've been doing it my sole source of income for almost a decade.
Posted by furrygirl on February 9, 2012 at 1:30 PM · Report this
N - I think it's a safe bet the FBI knows more about you than Newsweek.

I've never gone after my file, and I'd just as soon not know.
Posted by RonK, Seattle on February 9, 2012 at 1:32 PM · Report this
@18- FWIW, I was in no way attempting to dismiss your political activism. Rather, it seemed to my admittedly brief scan of what you were doing that there was so little risk to public safety in your activities that there was literally no reason for the FBI to be spending the kind of money that they must have been spending on watching you. Which causes the mind to wonder what other reasons they may have had. As for the "amateur" label, well that was in the Stranger's article. Continue on with your money-earning self!
Posted by teamcanada on February 9, 2012 at 2:06 PM · Report this
@ 18. And I took the word "amateur" straight from your website, Furry Girl, which describes it as "an evolving collection of amateur porn"...
Posted by Brendan Kiley on February 9, 2012 at 3:03 PM · Report this
I'd like to obtain my file later in life -- when I'm old -- By then, I won't have to worry about potentially losing out on good opportunities in my future from inquiring about my possible subversive behavior since I won't have much future left.
Posted by neo-realist on February 9, 2012 at 3:33 PM · Report this
Math.... 6 FBI agents at $50/hr for 40 hours = $12,000 of my fucking tax money.
Posted by amsellie on February 9, 2012 at 4:40 PM · Report this
Simone 24
I guess I had better start tweeting like mad because I don't think I have an fbi file yet. I won't go as far as those UK tourists who were detained by the TSA.
Posted by Simone on February 9, 2012 at 6:48 PM · Report this
You can actually save the stamps and request your FBI file via email -…
Posted by techlib on February 9, 2012 at 10:20 PM · Report this
furrygirl 26
Brendan: It's not a big deal, but "amateur" is a marketing label we use in the jizz biz to describe basically anything that doesn't look uber-airbrushed, or something that is vaguely different. (See also: "amateur night" at strip clubs is more likely to mean "visiting professional strippers from other clubs," not "someone's first night on stage ever.") With porn, "amateur" is rarely used in the sense of "unpaid and purely for transgressive fun," it's more of a search engine term used by folk like me to attract viewers looking to buy non-mainstream porn. The label of "amateur" porn has gotten more popular lately to describe homemade RedTube-type stuff that people upload for fun, which further confuses things. Outside of the porn genre context, however, "amateur" is usually taken to mean sloppy, unprofitable, or created by someone new to a subject, so that's why I'd never use the term "amateur" to describe my work in any context but marketing and SEO.

*rainbow star shoots across screen* "...The more you know!"
Posted by furrygirl on February 10, 2012 at 12:19 AM · Report this
furrygirl 27
TL;DR: "Amateur pornographer" versus "pornographer who sells amateur porn" is like "gay porn star" versus "person who performs in gay porn."
Posted by furrygirl on February 10, 2012 at 12:24 AM · Report this
Sweet, I didn't realize you could request your file. I would not be surprised if I had a file. A friend and I used to sell "bring home our troops" ribbons online and I actually talked to the FBI once because someone emailed us claiming to be a terrorist. It took me a week to setup a time to meet with the FBI, they met me in the parking lot of their building and essentially dismissed me off hand. They completely ignored the fact that I was handing them a self proclaimed terrorist. Sure, it probably wasn't one but that still blows me away.

As to how it effects you to have an FBI report out on you even if you weren't doing anything...

I've had a few jobs in my life that required an FBI background check and a good 50% of my wife's freelance gig's require it. If they pull the report and find that I was tracked for being a suspected domestic terrorist I would bet we wouldn't get those jobs. Doesn't matter if it's all bullshit. People take that seriously.
Posted by Root on February 10, 2012 at 8:23 AM · Report this
@ 26. Yes, the more you know! Thanks for the explanation.

I'm sending in requests for my FBI file and am encouraging coworkers and Slog readers to do the same. Any other tips or details from your report that you care to share?
Posted by Brendan Kiley on February 10, 2012 at 9:57 AM · Report this
furrygirl 30
Brendan: No particular tips to share, but I do like the linked web site's ability to generate the form letters for one to print and sign. Keep in mind that may take some time - my FBI file didn't come until 6 months had passed, and I only recently got a form letter from Homeland Security saying my request was still being processed. I've had seen people get other sorts of FOIA data much faster (some smaller agencies do FOIA via email, like public universities), but I'd nearly forgotten I'd sent for my FBI file by the time it arrived.
Posted by furrygirl on February 10, 2012 at 1:23 PM · Report this
furrygirl 31
Also: in the olden days before Facebook and Twitter (this was 2002, at the end of the anti-globalization push that peaked in the late 90s), activists didn't seek to make all of their interests, associations, favorite things, and beliefs a matter of permanent public record. Much of my file wasn't directly about me, but the FBI trying to figure out who knew who, who had worked together on a previous campaign, who they suspected might try to get arrested based on past arrests, that sort of thing. They were trying to figure out our social structure, and definitely trying to draw connections between "radicals" and the most mainstream liberal groups. I'm sure the FBI now just has some program that plucks all that data from Facebook, rather than having to sit outside people's homes on stakeouts and write down who was seen kissing who.
Posted by furrygirl on February 10, 2012 at 1:31 PM · Report this
HellboundAlleee 32
Read the FAQ on the site. It deals with the issue of the FBI starting a file on you if you request one. (Basically, it says it's an urban myth.)
Posted by HellboundAlleee on February 29, 2012 at 1:04 PM · Report this
chicagogreg 33
Wow, I really need to wake up. Throughout the whole article my brain read "amateur photographer" instead. Not sure if it makes too much difference though...
Posted by chicagogreg on March 2, 2012 at 8:11 AM · Report this
There's also the obvious problem with tons of surveillance -- when somebody is paid to find something criminal that you're doing, odds are they can find something to justify that, even if it's something innocuous.

Every year when deer hunting season rolls around some cows get shot. This isn't because cows look anything like deer, it's because a bunch of hunters are walking around looking for deer to shoot, and some of them are going to find deer even where they don't exist. The guys watching your every move are going to make those mistakes, too.
Posted by Terazilla on March 2, 2012 at 9:11 AM · Report this
Mike German is one of my personal heroes; I've had the good fortune to work with him. He always says the Fourth Amendment is the best tool law enforcement has, since it makes sure people identify in advance what kind of information they're actually looking for.
Posted by Alpel on March 2, 2012 at 10:24 AM · Report this

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