Unfortunately, my thought process wasn’t that complex when I suddenly had to talk to a federal agent on my phone about what I’d posted to Twitter.
“Can I take a second just to verify that you are, in fact, calling me?” I stammered out, recalling that I had a right to verify the agent’s identity–or perhaps call a lawyer before responding with anything that may be incriminating. An investigation by the Secret Service goes through the federal judicial system, after all. I hoped I didn’t need to pay for a fancy-pants federal defense attorney.
“Sure, but if you don’t call me back, we would have to show up to your address in Ann Arbor,” he replied.
I called the Chicago Field Office, as the Detroit Field Office was closed that day. “Hi, I’d like to request some information,” I said to the man on the phone.
“May I ask you why?” he asked.
What was I supposed to say to this guy? This wasn’t a FOIA request. I swallowed the lump in my throat and nervously capitulated. “I’m currently being investigated, and I wanted to verify that this agent works at the Detroit Field Office from this number before I give any information.”
The investigator checked. This agent did indeed work for the Secret Service. I called him back and was met with more dejected quasi-threats. He listed my father’s name and occupation, my (deceased) mother’s name and occupation, and my sister’s age. He dropped the first four numbers of my social security number before I told him I understood he was legit. As the debacle continued, I realized I’d increased the equivalent of a seditious parking ticket.
“Alright, I’ve got no more questions for you. If you pull anything like that again, though, we will not hesitate to show up armed at your door. Can I call a friend to corroborate the information you’ve given me?” the agent asked. I obliged. I thought to myself that it was probably better not to let this thing escalate.
Returning from my exam later that day, I finally told my roommates what had transpired. They were surprised that all of my posturing and bloviating about the “Feds” actually came to bite me. I was embarrassed that I actually ended up in this situation.
When I told my father what happened, he was hysterical. he finally asked. It was a good question. I wasn’t sure of the answer, and even though I hoped the whole thing was over, I had no way to know if I were on some kind of watch list going forward.
So was there any real way to monitor my digital footprint so I wouldn’t be targeted, or to keep myself safe in the future so this wouldn’t happen again? When I asked Ensafi, she brought up the General Data Protection Regulation in the EU, and California’s Consumer Privacy Act. However, both laws aim to make individuals aware of what commercial entities can and can’t do with your data, not what they can and can’t hand over to law enforcement or government bodies.