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How to find out what the government knows about you

Posted in Privacy with tags , , , , , on June 19, 2013 by Bradley Hall

I wrote this article several years ago for 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. With the NSA spying on everyone being in the news recently, I figured I would revive this old guide and post it to the Internet for all to see. I also know that I’m effectively outing myself as the author of this piece as it appeared in 2600. No big deal. My nom de Hacker is the same as the name I use on every other website. I’m sure the NSA figured that out when they came across my Facebook page a few years ago.

Onward, to the article…

First off, this article assumes that you are a dude or dudette living in the United States who wants to know what the US Government knows about you. This is actually a pretty easy endeavor, it is not, however, quick. It involves snail mail and is guaranteed to take at least three months to receive any results.

Why you want to know what the government knows about you is your own business. However, if you know that you have done something that could get you arrested if they knew where you are, you might not want to proceed. Also, this is not a primer on how to get your brother’s records, or your mother’s, or your great-grandfather’s, who you believe worked for Al Capone.

There’s also that rumor that if you ask the FBI to send you a copy of your file and they find you don’t have one, they start one on you right then because if you’re asking for a copy of your file, you must be doing something that necessitates them having a file on you. It’s like the one where if you buy a copy of 2600 the ever-present “they” start tracking you. I’m starting to wonder what happens when you write for 2600.

First, who do you think has a file on you? I’m talking about those (typically) three-letter-organizations, the FBI, NSA, CIA, DHS, etc. Since it’s so easy to write one letter and change it slightly for each organization, why not send a letter to all of them. Remember, the price of a stamp is currently 44 cents. The price is set to go up to 46 cents in January.

There are two Acts at work here. First there is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), was signed into law by President Johnson in 1966. It is a law that promotes openness in government and allows members of the public to request documents from the various governmental entities. The second Act is the Privacy Act of 1974. This Act governs the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies. The Privacy Act also prohibits the disclosure of information from a system of records without the written consent of the subject individual.

In order to obtain any documents about yourself, you have to invoke both Acts in a letter to each organization you wish to contact about your records.

In your letter to each organization, it would help to follow proper letter writing protocols. That way whoever receives your letter will have an easier time reading it and figuring out what you want. The scope of this article does not include teaching you how to write a letter. If you would like a refresher course on how to write a letter, then type “proper letter writing format” into your search engine of choice. However, the CIA has a great sample FOIA/PA letter online at

Now that you are ready to write your letter, it should contain the following information: That you are seeking any records that organization has about you, make sure to explain that you are invoking both FOIA and the Privacy Act, your full name, any alias you may have used (if your name is William, but people call you Bill, this would fit, as would any screen name or “hacker name” you use or have used), date of birth, where you were born, social security number, phone number, current address, a fee you are willing to pay for this service (I recommend $25), note, that you do not have to send this money in unless they ask for it, and if they do ask for it, it means they must have quite a bit of files to send you. I have requested files from FOIA from several government organizations and none of them have ever charged me for the files they sent, though they did inform me that more information is available, at a price.

The Secret Service’s FOIA page states that you need to sign you letter and have a notary witness it or affix the following to your letter: “I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on [date].” You should also include a copy of your drivers license or other identification so that they can compare your actual identification to the information you have provided (and your signature on your license to the signature on your letter).

Now that your letter is written, below are the addresses of the various governmental agencies you may want to try contacting. I am only giving the address to the main FBI location, not the branch offices. You may want to check the FBI’s website to find out the nearest branch office to you and appeal to them as well. These are just a few of the organizations you can contact about records. If you were ever in the military there is a slew of resources online available to help you figure out where to send your inquiry as to your military records.

Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)

Freedom of Information Operations Unit (SARO)
Drug Enforcement Administration
700 Army Navy Drive
Arlington, VA 22202

Secret Service

Communications Center (FOI/PA)
245 Murray Lane
Building T-5
Washington, D.C. 20223

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

The Privacy Office
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
245 Murray Drive SW
Washington, D.C. 20528-0655

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Attn: FOI/PA Request
Record/Information Dissemination Section
170 Marcel Drive
Winchester, VA 22602-4843

National Security Agency

National Security Agency
Attn: FOIA/PA Office (DJP4)
9800 Savage Road, Suite 6248
Ft. George G. Meade, MD 20755-6248

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

Information and Privacy Coordinator
Central Intelligence Agency
Washington, D.C. 20505


Office of the General Counsel
INTERPOL-U.S. National Central Bureau
Department of Justice
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001

Defense Intelligence Agency

Defense Intelligence Agency
200 MacDill Blvd
Washington, DC 20340-5100

Odds are that you should only try contacting agencies you believe would have information on you. If you’ve never robbed a bank or tried to kill a President, you might not want to bother the Secret Service. But, even if you haven’t, why send them a letter anyway, you never know what you’ll find.


Digital Vertigo

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , on May 22, 2012 by Bradley Hall

I just finished reading Digital Vertigo, the latest book by Andrew Keen. If I recall, it has been nearly five years since his last book, The Cult of the Amateur.

His target in his first book was Web 2.0 which was the user generated content of blogs, Wikipedia, YouTube, and the like. For this new book, he targets the Web 3.0 universe of social media. He lists more social media sites and apps and things than I have ever heard of.

MySpace, Facebook, Google+, SocialEyes, Twitter, Klout, Kred, LiveJournal, Blippy, BeKnown, BeWithMe, Flavor.Me,, and a whole host of other widely and lesser known social media things that offer a social solution for everything.

Keen focuses the narrative around the 19th century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, who he happened to “meet” in London’s University College over 170 years after Bentham’s death. How? Bentham bequeathed his body to the college and that it always be on display in a wooden and glass case he called an “Auto-Icon” which he translated as “A man that is his own image.”

While ruminating on this dead man, Keen began thinking that everyone is now their own Auto-Icon as they keep up their public image on Facebook, Twitter, and every other Web 3.0 site and app and whatever else there is.

The Internet has become, what Bentham called, an Inspection House, a panopticon. Essentially a prison constructed in such a way that an observer is able to see all of the inmates, yet none of the inmates know they are being watched.

Keen applied this idea of being always watched, but not knowing it to Web 3.0, except, that’s not the case at all. Everyone on Facebook, etc know that they’re being watched, that the all important Like button is the thing they crave attention from. The funnier, goofier, most Kony2012-like thing they can come up with will generate more likes, more shares, and a higher Klout score, as well as more people who want to read what you say.

In this way, Facebook, Twitter, and company have become everyone’s personal echo chamber, one person says something or posts a picture, and then it gets shot halfway around the world in several seconds as people keep liking and sharing and commenting on it.

Many of these websites are supported with advertising dollars. Facebook displays ads, other sites do too. One thing I have always wondered about this is there’s a finite number of dollars in the world. Every time someone creates a new site or thing that needs advertising to support it, that’s less money used to advertise on something else. Eventually there’s going to be a stopping point where there is no one left who can spare the money to advertise on every new venture.

Actually, that might be happening now. GM recently announced that it will be stopping its online advertising in Facebook, as they have found it does not motivate people to go buy a new Chevrolet or Cadillac.

One thing I am interested in seeing is what will happen when people from today’s connected age start running for public office, or even the presidency? Their every Tweet, forum post, Facebook update, possibly even every meal they ate will be available for public scrutiny online on some corner of the Internet.

If you really want to protect your privacy online, then the best thing to do is to not post anything online at all.

The Internet does not forgive and it does not forget.

In all, I really enjoyed this book and had been looking forward to it for quite a while. We all live in public now. All of us. Several times each year, the news reminds us of that fact as members of the nameless, faceless masses make a post or a video or do something online that for better or worse gains them a little bit of notoriety. The world is watching.