The Federal Bureau of Investigation has always encouraged Americans to report anything they consider a threat to national security or a violation of Federal law.
But recently the FBI has adopted a practice that is almost certain to sharply decrease the number of people willing to report knowledge of a crime.
A friend of mine named Jim recently visited the San Francisco field office of the FBI to report a violation of Federal computer fraud and harassment laws.
This meant visiting the San Francisco Federal Building (technically named the Phillip Burton Federal Building, in honor of the late San Francisco Congressman).
At 450 Golden Gate Avenue, located close to the Civic Center and City Hall, it serves as a courthouse of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
It also lhouses offices for such Federal law enforcement agencies as the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Marshal’s Service.
To enter, you must first show a driver’s license or State ID card. Then you must remove
- Your belt
- Your shoes
- Your watch
- Your wallet
- All other objects from your pants pockets
- Any jacket you’re wearing
- Any cell phone you’re carrying
All of these must be placed in one or more large plastic containers, which are run through an x-ray scanner.
Then, assuming you avoid setting off any alarm system, you’re set for your next big screen test.
This comes when you enter the 13th floor office of the FBI.
According to Jim: You walk into a large room filled with several comfortable chairs that sit close to the floor. Ahead is a window such as you find in a bank–made of thick, presumably bulletproof glass.
A secretary on the opposite side greets you, and asks why you’ve come.
You say that you want to speak with an agent about what you believe is a violation of Federal law.
If you’ve done your homework, you should know at least the general legal area this violation falls under. And you’re even better-off if you know what division of the FBI is assigned to handle it.
For example: Jim knew the acts he wanted to report were a violation of Federal anti-computer hacking and harassment laws. He also knew that these violations are handled by the FBI’s Cybercrime Division.
So he asked to speak with an agent from that division.
The secretary said she would see what she could do. But before he could speak with an agent, he would have to show her his driver’s license or State ID card.
The secretary makes a xerox of this, and then hands the card back.
Then, as if that isn’t enough, you must fill out a single-page form. In this, you’re required to provide your:
- Phone number
- Social Security Number
- The reason you want to speak to an agent
Of course, you can refuse to fill out the form. But then they will refuse to let you meet with an FBI agent to gain help in resolving your problem.
In Jim’s case, his request to speak with an agent specializing in Cybercrime was denied. He would up speaking instead with the “duty agent”–whichever luckless person has been assigned to deal with the public that day.
Unofficially, the “duty agent” is the one who takes the “nut calls” from, among others, the mentally disabled who claim they’re picking up KGB transmissions in the fillings of their teeth.
In Jim’s case, the “duty agent” he drew specialized in Gang Violence. While this is definitely a worthy subject for investigation, it had nothing to do with the matter Jim wanted to talk about.
The agent candidly said he knew nothing about cybercrime. Which meant he couldn’t give Jim even the barest information about what he might expect to happen after submitting his report.
Fortunately, Jim had thought ahead enough to write up a detailed, three-page report of the cyber attacks he had recently experienced. He now gave this to the agent.
The agent promised to forward it to the Cybercrime Division.
Jim asked when he might hear from someone there. The agent said this was highly unlikely.
Jim was surprised. The agent was in turn surprised that Jim would expect anyone to get back to him.
“I would think,” said Jim, “they would want to ask me a few questions. And give me some idea as to what was going on in my case.”
The agent said that if the FBI wanted more information, they would contact him. And, no, they wouldn’t give him any hints about what–if anything–was happening in his case. (Assuming they chose to investigate it.)
All of which means that if you’re a citizen who wants to report a crime to the FBI, you had better be willing to give up a lot of your own privacy beforehand.