I Got Investigated by the Secret Service. Here’s How to Not Be Me
In the spring of 2022, I was sitting in my college apartment studying for an exam when I received a call from an unknown number. I thought nothing of it, I replied, and was stunned to meet a Secret Service agent who asked me about an unsavory tweet I had posted about former President George W. Bush four months earlier.
“When you tweeted that,” the federal agent asked on the line, “were you talking about George Bush Sr. or George Bush Jr.?”
My eyes darted between the Detroit field office’s contact list on their website and my boyfriend in my room, afraid that when I was 20 I would be charged with a federal crime.
“George Bush Jr.” I replied. “Because he’s still alive.”
It was incredible to me that a federal agent saw my old drunk tweet and felt it was important enough to investigate, let alone find my contact information and call me to confirm whether or not I posed a threat.
At the time, I had an unhealthy relationship with Twitter. I was hoping to gain an audience on the social media site so I could sell my substack like my favorite internet microstars. But one night, drunk after arguing with my roommates about 9/11 and the unjust war in Iraq, I tweeted that George Bush should be dead and went to bed. It wasn’t uncommon for me to make inflammatory remarks. My roommates, usually more cautious and forward-thinking than me, advised me to delete it. I ignored them and carried on for reasons of ego and deceptive integrity. Four months later it came back to bite me.
While my college classmates and I were concerned about the federal government interfering in the lives of ordinary people, that’s not the only area of surveillance I should have been concerned about. ISPs and platforms like Twitter and Facebook all regularly moderate their services in ways that can either bring users into the eyes of law enforcement or protect them from surveillance. This is a distinction often left to those in power. Whether it’s a stupid tweet or a legitimate complaint depends heavily on who is responsible for that call.
“Governments in Iran and China are centralized and either control service providers or have very strict rules about who runs them and how,” said Roya Ensafi, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan and founder of Censored Planet. “However, in many other countries, service providers are commercial companies like Comcast and Verizon, so the government has to enforce policies to figure out how to implement censorship. Although it’s different, the government always has a good idea of what the ISPs are doing,” she elaborates.
The US government is not usually inclined to release data about its own surveillance activities, but the American Civil Liberties Union and other similar organizations hold a mountain of data on the often racist and invasive activities of American intelligence agencies. Also, social media companies have a long history of working with intelligence agencies to gather information about their users.
Unfortunately, my thought process wasn’t that complex when I suddenly had to talk to a federal agent over my phone about what I had posted on Twitter.
“Can I take a moment to confirm that you’re actually calling me?” I stammered, reminding myself that I had the right to verify the agent’s identity — or perhaps call an attorney before I started anything incriminating replied. An investigation by the secret service finally runs through the federal judiciary. I hoped I didn’t have to pay for a pompous federal defender.
“Sure, but if you don’t call me back, we’d have to get to your address in Ann Arbor,” he replied.
I called the Chicago field office because the Detroit field office was closed that day. “Hi, I would like to ask some information from you,” I said to the man on the phone.
“Can I ask why?” he asked.
What should I have said to this guy? This was not a FOIA request. I swallowed the lump in my throat and nervously surrendered. “I’m currently under investigation and wanted to verify that this agent works at this Detroit Field Office number before I give any information.”
The investigator checked. This agent actually worked for the Secret Service. I called him back and was met with more dejected quasi-threats. It listed my father’s name and occupation, my (deceased) mother’s name and occupation, and my sister’s age. He dropped the first four digits of my social security number before I told him I understood he was legit. As the debacle continued, I realized I had accumulated the equivalent of a rioting speeding ticket.
“Okay, I have no more questions for you. However, if you pull something like this again, we won’t hesitate to show up at your door armed. Can I call a friend to confirm the information you gave me?” the agent asked. I am committed. I figured it might be better not to let this escalate.
When I returned from my exam later that day, I finally told my roommates what had happened. She were surprised that all my fuss and talk about the “Feds” actually hurt me. I I was embarrassed that I actually got into this situation.
When I told my father what had happened, he was hysterical. “Will this get you a job?” he finally asked. It was a good question. I wasn’t sure of the answer, and while I hoped the whole thing was over, I had no way of knowing if I was on some sort of watch list going forward.
So was there any real way to monitor my digital footprint so I wouldn’t be targeted, or protect myself in the future so something like this doesn’t happen again? When I asked Ensafi, she brought up the EU General Data Protection Regulation and California Consumer Privacy Act. However, both laws aim to educate individuals about what commercial companies can and cannot do with your information, and what they can and cannot share with law enforcement or government agencies.
“I don’t know if Americans’ daily lives are affected by surveillance, but I can assure you that in our VPN study, we found that a large number of users in the United States who use VPNs think that they do this protects their privacy and security from service providers,” says Ensafi. The presence of internet influencers promoting VPN software has long made me suspicious of how effective they actually were. Ensafi agrees.
“Years ago, my students and I decided to examine the ecosystem through systematic research into how weak implementations are, how weak VPN services are, whether or not they leak DNS data or properly implement a kill switch, as well as understanding the User perspective better why they use VPN services. Do you know what a VPN actually offers? Where do you find VPNs from? They think VPNs are a tool to save the day, but that’s not always the case.”
I know for a fact that a VPN probably wouldn’t have helped in my case. I have publicly available identifiable information and a link to some other things in my Twitter profile and bio. But Twitter shares user information — usually at the behest of a subpoena, but sometimes whenever it wants to. Take the case of @PRGuy17 for example. Twitter was ordered by a court in Australia to release the user’s personal information during a defamation case. That doesn’t even take into account actual data-sharing agreements that the platform – or other platforms – might have for their own purposes, and who knows what third parties might do with your information.
VPNs are helpful, but they’re not particularly useful if you’re in my situation. A simple fix, of course, is to just pay attention to what you say publicly, whether you’re identifiable or not. Another simple internet hygiene tip I recommend is to avoid suspicious users. I am not joking. The FBI spends millions of dollars on social media user surveillance. If it seems like a user is trying to extract information from you, especially of an illegal nature, don’t do it. Also, do not click on suspicious links. Most of the time these are viruses, but it’s not just scammers and scammers who set up fake websites to “joy” users and steal their IP addresses and other personal information. I don’t expect any of you to become criminals, but you can’t be too careful. If you absolutely must, use secure and encrypted messaging clients like Signal.
I still post opinionated views on social media and try to use sarcasm and satire to comment on government surveillance and conspiracy theories. But I’ve stopped joking about the decline of presidents. Do I know exactly how to avoid or stop this in the future? Incomplete. It’s hard to give tips when your words are caught between private corporations and the global surveillance complex. I think I did the right thing by cooperating and trying to minimize the potential consequences of a drunk tweet. But what if the agent — or anyone who may have reported my tweet — had more dirt on me, or had some sort of personal or political vendetta?
What I can say for sure is that it’s always good to be careful. I know now that I have to be careful what I say and only say things that I really mean. So above all, exercise caution. And remember, when you’re talking on the internet, you never know who’s listening.