Old School Snail Mail 'Metadata' Still Being Harvested By The USPS And Turned Over To Law Enforcement/Security Agencies By Request

from the get-it-all,-just-in-case dept

We live in a wondrous age of technological advancement, where almost any form of communication can be instantly captured by interceding security agencies and stored safely away somewhere in Utah where it can be “questioned” at the agencies’ convenience.

But the old school ways still have their charm. Various entities have intercepted snail mail since the days when it was just referred to as “mail.” Not so much interception goes on now, partly because there’s much less to intercept, but law enforcement agencies are still able to access scans of the envelopes of every piece of mail sent or received in the US, all without a warrant. Not unexpectedly, this “enhancement” to the “mail covers” program emerged post-9/11.

The NY Times has a good piece on the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, which was put into place following the post-9/11 anthrax mailings. It quite literally scans every envelope, post card, and piece of junk mail — some 160 billion pieces of mail a year. These scanners probably know more about the mail you receive than you do.

The Mail Isolation program is really just a super-beefed-up version of the USPS “mail covers” program that has been around for about a century, explains the Times. Mail covers are warrantless requests for photos of the outside of specific recipients’ mail.

Basically, a law enforcement agency fills out the request, and for 30 days (extendable to 120 days), it receives scans of all mail related to the subject of the request. Only the outside of the mail is provided, as opening mail would require a warrant. Authorities maintain that no warrant is needed for information on the outside of a piece of mail, as there can be no reasonable expectation of privacy. The USPS can deny a mail covers request, but rarely does.

The old “mail covers” program was targeted. The new, post-9/11 version isn’t. Everything is photographed and anything can be requested by simply filling out a form. The argument is that there’s no expectation of privacy seeing as any number of people will be able to view what’s written on the outside of the envelope as it’s in transit. Of course, people might feel their privacy is being violated if they observed someone going through a stack of their mail and taking photos of every envelope, but that’s where the courts stand on this issue currently.

Unlike other invasive programs officials have defended by claiming they have prevented [insert number here] terrorist attacks, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program has at least been instrumental in taking down a purveyor of terrorist-like activity.

In a criminal complaint filed June 7 in Federal District Court in Eastern Texas, the F.B.I. said a postal investigator tracing the ricin letters was able to narrow the search to Shannon Guess Richardson, an actress in New Boston, Tex., by examining information from the front and back images of 60 pieces of mail scanned immediately before and after the tainted letters sent to Mr. Obama and Mr. Bloomberg showing return addresses near her home. Ms. Richardson had originally accused her husband of mailing the letters, but investigators determined that he was at work during the time they were mailed.

While that’s comforting, the downside is that this system, like any other mass data collection, is prone to abuse. And what’s considered not “private enough” to require a warrant can still tell the requesting party quite a bit about you.

“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.”

The postal service holds the power to approve or deny these requests, without any outside review, which means every request will sail right through. 15-20,000 requests come through each year related to criminal activity. The number of requests made for national security reasons hasn’t been revealed.

In the post-9/11 security/law enforcement climate, it seems it’s better to have everything and not need it than want something and not have it. This is all above-board and perfectly constitutional according to the courts, so if any of these entities want to dig through your mail for any reason, (perhaps as a form of political harassment) all they have to do is fill out the right paperwork.

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Comments on “Old School Snail Mail 'Metadata' Still Being Harvested By The USPS And Turned Over To Law Enforcement/Security Agencies By Request”

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11 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t know, the example given for the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program doesn’t instill me with confidence. Are they claiming the item was hand-delivered to the post office? What other way could they determine that the guy was working when the it was mailed?

I put stuff in the mail before I leave for work in the morning, 5-6 hours later the postman comes by and picks it up. On the rare occasions when I personally take a package to the post office, half of the time I’m just being helpful and it isn’t *my* package. For that matter, based on the horror stories I’ve heard, if this had originated at the local post office, I wouldn’t be surprised if a postal worker discovered the envelope on the floor or fallen behind something and just stuffed it in the middle of a stack of other envelopes.

Anonymous Coward says:

The argument is that there’s no expectation of privacy seeing as any number of people will be able to view what’s written on the outside of the envelope as it’s in transit.

The volume of mail handled by people involved in mail delivery is such that they do not usually remember individual items for more than a second or two whilst handling it.
Viewing is not the same as recording for latter searching, and does not pose the threat to privacy that recording all mail does, so recording a persons mail is an invasion of privacy mail

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Not the same, a person can be expected to remember a deliberate conversation, where it was held and what they saw, especially if they have set out to gather information about someone. An audio, or video recording is a more accurate way of remembering such interactions.
I am making the distinction between a deliberate and specific interaction, and a routine but variable activity. With the latter, something odd, or out of the ordinary may stick in the memory for a bit, like delivering a letter with a fancy foreign stamp, but most of the time their is nothing different to remember.

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