What is an FBI File?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An FBI file is a dossier of information kept by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Such files are used to keep track of persons and organizations of interest for the FBI, and many people have such files, although the contents may not be terribly interesting. In the early 21st century, thanks to legislation such as the Patriot Act, many intelligence agencies including the FBI established systems for sharing information between each other, potentially making such record keeping more efficient.

Noted scientist Albert Einstein had an FBI file.
Noted scientist Albert Einstein had an FBI file.

There are a number of reasons for the FBI to open a file on someone. Both American and foreign citizens have files at the FBI, and the intelligence agency keeps extensive files on many prominent people. As a general rule, any sort of activity which could potentially pose a threat to national security is recorded in an FBI file. For example, someone who regularly attends protests may have an FBI file, as the intelligence agency may identify this person as a potential radical. Obviously, actual radicals also tend to have extensive FBI files which record their activities, known associates, and so forth.

The FBI has its headquarters at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C.
The FBI has its headquarters at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C.

The information in an FBI file can be quite varied and very extensive. Agents typically add information as they acquire it, making notes about the movements of a subject and the people he or she interacts with. FBI files can also include transcripts of wiretaps, subpoenaed bank records, and other information which has been gathered on an individual.

Along with other agencies, the FBI has a large database of declassified files on historically interesting people. The intelligence agency maintains an electronic reading room for people who want to read FBI files on people like Albert Einstein, Groucho Marx, and the Zodiac Killer, along with organizations such as Greenpeace, among many others. Some of these documents may have redacted portions, but they are still quite interesting to read, and they can provide some interesting historical context.

It is also possible to obtain a copy of your own FBI file, if you have one. Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the FBI must provide a copy of your file to you if you file a formal request. Be aware that due to security concerns, your file may have portions which are redacted. It is also possible to obtain FBI files on deceased family members and people or organizations of historical interest. Filing an FOIA request is free; directions are available on the FBI's website.

Legislation passed by Congress, such as the Patriot Act, allowed the FBI and other agencies to share file information more efficiently.
Legislation passed by Congress, such as the Patriot Act, allowed the FBI and other agencies to share file information more efficiently.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@David09 - The thing that really concerns me is not the existence of FBI criminal files, but how well Homeland Security has streamlined information sharing between agencies.

I watched a former director of the FBI on a news program the other day. He said there are still problems with different agencies sharing information with each other. One database doesn’t “talk” to another database so to speak.

Unfortunately, this represents a real hindrance in putting the pieces of the puzzle together when trying to track down real terrorist targets. I realize that the Patriot Act was meant to solve those problems, but there are still issues from what I’ve heard.


@Mammmood - I doubt it. If it were, the FBI would have to keep a personal FBI file on just about any person alive who came from the Middle East, even if that person represented no terrorist threat whatsoever.

From what I understand, the real challenge in security agencies is not whether they can amass background information on individuals. It is knowing how much of that information represents credible, actionable intelligence and how much of it is mere chatter as they like to call it.

Unless you had done something to arouse the suspicion of the FBI, I don’t think that your ethnicity alone would have raised eyebrows.


As someone of Middle Eastern descent, I wondered if the FBI got a file on me after the September 11, 2001 attacks. I realize that there is some amount of paranoia in this concern, but I was definitely looking over my shoulder after those terrorist attacks.

I remember wondering if my phone calls were suddenly being tapped or if I would be subject to unusual searches at the airport. Nothing of the sort materialized, at least to my knowledge.

I do wonder though if part of the criteria that the FBI uses to keep files on people is their ethnic heritage or religion.


I have always thought it would be so cool to work for the FBI. There is something really alluring to me about the extreme accuracy and professionalism they maintain, and though I’m sure it would be a challenge, I think it would be very rewarding.

I wouldn’t want to be an agent who goes out into the field with a gun, though. I would like to be someone who compiles information and maintains the accuracy of FBI files. That would be a really important job.

I’m sure that anyone who works for the agency has an FBI file. It’s very important to them to keep accurate and detailed information on their people on the inside.


Wow! I wonder if I have an FBI file! It would be interesting to find out.

I really doubt that I do, though. I never attend protests, and I don’t associate with anyone who could be thought of as a radical. I visited someone in prison once, but that’s about the extent of my dealings with any criminals.

Imagine requesting to see the FBI file on yourself and finding that you really do have one! They might remove the interesting parts to let you look at it, though. If they had any valuable secret information on you, they probably wouldn’t want you to know about it.

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