The United States Postal Service reported that it approved nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations.
The number of requests, contained in a little-noticed 2014 audit of the surveillance program by the Postal Service’s inspector general, shows that the surveillance program is more extensive than previously disclosed and that oversight protecting Americans from potential abuses is lax.
The Postal Service takes pictures of every piece of mail processed in the United States – 160 billion last year – and keeps them on hand for up to a month.
The audit found that in many cases the Postal Service approved requests to monitor an individual’s mail without adequately describing the reason or having proper written authorization.
In addition to raising privacy concerns, the audit questioned the efficiency and accuracy of the Postal Service in handling the requests. Many requests were not processed in time, the audit said, and computer errors caused the same tracking number to be assigned to different surveillance requests.
“Insufficient controls could hinder the Postal Inspection Service’s ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail and harm the Postal Service’s brand,” the audit concluded.
The audit was posted in May without public announcement on the website of the Postal Service inspector general and got almost no attention.
The surveillance program, officially called mail covers, is more than a century old. At the request of state or federal law enforcement agencies or the Postal Inspection Service, postal workers record names, return addresses and any other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered to a person’s home.
Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.
The Postal Service also uses a program called Mail Imaging, in which its computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail sent in the United States. The program’s primary purpose is to process the mail, but in some cases it is also used as a surveillance system that allows law enforcement agencies to request stored images of mail sent to and received by people they are investigating.
Another system, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking Program, was created after anthrax attacks killed five people, including two postal workers, in late 2001. It is used to track or investigate packages or letters suspected of containing biohazards like anthrax or ricin. The program was first made public in 2013 in the course of an investigation into ricin-laced letters mailed to President Obama and Michael R. Bloomberg, then New York City’s mayor, by an actress, Shannon Guess Richardson.
Law enforcement officials say this deceptively old-fashioned method of collecting data provides a wealth of information about the businesses and associates of their targets, and can lead to bank and property records and even accomplices. (Opening the mail requires a warrant.)
Interviews and court records also show that the surveillance program was used by a county attorney and sheriff to investigate a political opponent in Arizona — the county attorney was later disbarred in part because of the investigation — and to monitor privileged communications between lawyers and their clients, a practice not allowed under postal regulations.
Theodore Simon, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he was troubled by the audit and the potential for the Postal Service to snoop uncontrolled into the private lives of Americans.
“It appears that there has been widespread disregard of the few protections that were supposed to be in place,” Mr. Simon said.
Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert and an author, said whether it was a postal worker taking down information or a computer taking images, the program was still an invasion of privacy.
“Basically they are doing the same thing as the other programs, collecting the information on the outside of your mail, the metadata, if you will, of names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations, which gives the government a pretty good map of your contacts, even if they aren’t reading the contents,” he said.
“It’s a treasure trove of information,” said James J. Wedick, a former F.B.I. agent who spent 34 years at the agency and who said he used mail covers in a number of investigations, including one that led to the prosecution of several elected officials in California on corruption charges. “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.”
But, he said: “It can be easily abused because it’s so easy to use and you don’t have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form.”
For more info read: Postal Service is spying on your mail & selling data to private companies.