HOWTO request your FBI file

xyzzy123 sez, "Want to make a freedom-of-information request to the FBI or other three-letter agencies for any information they might have about you? This post links to a website that lets you enter personal information (or not, if you prefer), and then automatically print form letters to the correct government offices."

The incident that precipitated the article is pretty bizarre: a woman with a history of protest asked the FBI for her file and discovered that she'd been closely followed. What's more, she learned that despite all that close surveillance, the FBI got her political allegiances completely wrong, describing bitter rivals as fellow travelers and generally getting it all messed up.

Life Get Your FBI File! (Thanks, xyzzy123!)


  1. Remember that in the FBI procedural manual, requesting your FBI file is a sign that you might be a terrorist!

    1. I’m not completely sure if you’re joking. I think Poe’s Law applies to conversations about the U.S. security apparatus.

      1. I wouldn’t think they were joking at all. That’s the first thing I thought of. Today I’m a nameless person on the internet being tracked by Google to sell advertising for things mentioned in my emails. Tomorrow I’m on a red-flag list for the FBI wondering why I’m so interested in who has been watching me.

    2. Yeah, I have to wonder if requesting information will create a file for you that didn’t exist before.  It would be interesting for people to check later to see if their empty file grows afterwards and conduct a study on this.

      The website says this in the FAQ:

      If I request my file, will they open a file on me if I don’t have one?

      We believe that this is an urban legend. For many years people have joked that “If you request your FBI file, the FBI will create a file on you if you don’t have one.” While this is funny in a darkly humorous and self-referential kind of way, there is no evidence to suggest that this is true. Requesting a copy of your own records via the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act is perfectly legal, and there is no reason to believe that the FBI would start a file on you for such a request.

      But, this statement is notably missing any references to sources at all.  Call me skeptical, but I just don’t take random website’s word on things without supporting evidence/backup.

      1. I’ve always thought they would at the very least need to create a file that started with “requested file” and then created a folder for you to store that request in.

  2. I’ve done a bit of activism, including protesting at a Senate hearing.  I bet I have a file!

  3. When I was studying archival practices as a grad student, a professor told us of the value of requesting FBI files, but warned that if you didn’t already have a file, the act of asking would be the first step in creating one.  

  4. That website is obviously a ploy by the FBI to encourage potential terrorists to out themselves by requesting their own file.  And BoingBoing fell right into their trap.  For shame.

  5. There’s nothing new about the FBI getting everything wrong in a surveillance. In 1974 they put a tracking device on my car and installed a listening device in my home for 8 days. The claim for their mistakes, according to my files was that “Stew Albert and Judy Gumbo are difficult to surveil because they are paranoid about being surveilled.” Check out the full story on my website the more things change.

  6. I heard I was mentioned on BoingBoing this week, but it took me a while to find the post.  Is there a reason I’ve been anonymized as “a woman” rather than being referenced by the pseudonym I’ve been using for a decade?  I don’t disclose my legal name online, but I do use *a* name.

    Thanks for making this my third mention on BB, though!  When I filed the request, I assumed this older BB-covered incident would show up:

  7. I can’t say I’m surprised that the FBI got all the surveillance information wrong.  They spent a year trying to find me once and never bothered to check the phone book, back when everyone was in the phone book.

    Just because they might be incompetent doesn’t mean they can’t do a lot of damage, though.

  8. i think the act of just requesting a file would open the doors to actually starting a new one on you……  big brother is ever vigilant

  9. Can you request a file of your relative? I’d love to see if they have anything about my father (who is no longer alive). He worked in the Skunkworks at Lockheed on many secret projects. As for me, I was fingerprinted at the FBI headquarters in DC when my wife and I were applying to adopt a baby. So, I would assume, if I didn’t already have a file, I have one now.

  10. There’s a great book about John Lennon’s FBI file, which was requested in a FOIA test case. It took 14 years for them to release it because they said it could endanger national security.  When it was finally released to the author, there were several things very wrong in it–including a “wanted poster” that showed the wrong guy.

    I see that the author (Jon Wiener) has a website with scans of some of the documents.

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