Educational CyberPlayGround ®

How To get Your FBI file

Karl Auerbach

It kind of bothers me when people who want to ask the government "what information do you have on me" use the Freedom of Information Act and yet totally forget the usually more appropriate and potentially more powerful Privacy Act.

The latter, the Privacy Act of 1974 has an odd statutory number. It is 5 USC 552a - notice that final 'a'

The FOIA, on the other hand is 5 USC 552 - without that little 'a'.

You can see the Privacy Act at:

Why use the Privacy Act?
Because it is designed to allow people to see records the government has about them. It has limitations, but they are fewer and different than those in FOIA. Agencies are not allowed to levy a fee under the Privacy Act. And under the Privacy agencies have only a short time period in which agencies must respond (which they will typically ignore.)

It has been my experience that Federal agencies use the confusion about 5 USC 552 and 5 USC 552a, along with the public's tendency to think "everything is FOIA" as a tool to respond to Privacy Act requests as if they were FOIA requests.

The Privacy Act of 1974 is a thin shadow of what was originally proposed, but it is hardly a vacuous law.

If people want information about themselves they should look to the proper tool, the Privacy Act, and use FOIA as a backup. Make separate requests, and make sure that the agency does not dance away from the obligations of the privacy act.

BTW, here is a page about the history of the Privacy Act of 1974: (There is a link to that page from the EPIC website, but it has a typo in the link.)

The legislative history is at

I've had a copy of the Senate report at


Want to See Your NSA or FBI File?

Have you ever Tweeted a politically subversive message, attended a protest, or signed an oppositional petition? If so, you may have a dedicated file on you kept by the FBI and/or the NSA.

With a simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, any U.S. citizen can obtain one's NSA or FBI file, if such a file exists.

It simply takes a few minutes to fill out the requisite forms and mail them to the appropriate address. An independent site www.getmyfbifile - will, free of charge, generate the necessary forms for you already filled out.

Of course, you can also do this directly through the NSA or FBI if you are worried about providing personal information to an independent site.

While an appropriate level of cynicism may be warranted concerning the level of transparency one should expect from such a request - should your file be substantial - it is the law that your complete file be provided to you upon request. Demand that the law be followed, for it is your right as a citizen to know this information.