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.