Electronic surveillance of digital communications is routinely in the headlines these days. But a report out this week from The New York Times reveals that Americans with privacy concerns should also be worried about government spying on old-fashioned snail mail.
According to reports, the U.S. Postal Service approved almost 50,000 requests from law enforcement agencies and its own mail-inspection wing to monitor Americans’ parcels for criminal investigations and national security concerns last year.
The information was obtained from the a 2014 audit conducted by the Postal Services inspector general, which Politico recently reported, as well as Freedom of Information requests filed by The Times.
Via a June Politico report:
The Office of Inspector General audit of so-called “mail covers” — orders to record addresses or copy the outside of all mail delivered to an individual or an address — found that about 20 percent of the orders implemented for outside law enforcement agencies were not properly approved, and 13 percent were either unjustified or not correctly documented.
Meanwhile, some of the safeguards set up to catch these shortcomings were missing: The Postal Service wasn’t regularly conducting the annual reviews required by federal rules.
While many Americans have abandoned so-called snail mail for most of their communications, the auditors found the Post Office issued 49,000 mail cover orders in the past fiscal year. And postal workers were often slow to stop recording and sending data on mail even after those orders expired: The audit found 928 covers considered “active” even though the orders for them had expired.The Postal Service “mail covers” surveillance has been going on for more than a century and has been lauded by investigators as a means for law enforcement to learn intimate details about the business and personal relationships of people suspected of crimes.
Officials are unable to open suspects’ mail without a warrant. But address information (both recipient and return) and the names of people on packages often helps to build cases.
The Times expanded on the depth of the Postal Service snooping Monday:
The mail cover surveillance requests cut across all levels of government — from global intelligence investigations by the United States Army Criminal Investigations Command, which requested 500 mail covers from 2001 through 2012, to state-level criminal inquiries by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which requested 69 mail covers in the same period. The Department of Veterans Affairs requested 305, and the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security asked for 256. The information was provided to The Times under the Freedom of Information request.
Postal officials did not say how many requests came from agencies in charge of national security — including the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection — because release of the information, wrote Kimberly Williams, a public records analyst for the Postal Inspection Service, “would reveal techniques and procedures for law enforcement or prosecutions.”While the Postal surveillance programs are not as sweeping as the National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance of electronic communications, there are some similarities.
For instance, the Postal Service photographs billions of envelopes and packages each year through its Mail Imaging program. Those images are used primarily for processing of mail, though there have been instances where law enforcement requested information stored as part of the program.
Another program put into place following mail anthrax attacks, the Mail Isolation and Tracking Program, specifically targets packages that could potentially contain biohazards and places them under additional investigative scrutiny.
The NSA’s actions and Postal Service surveillance are also tied together by insistences from the administrations of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush that the “mail cover” programs justify the NSA’s surveillance in the electronic realm.