Inspector General Says Postal Service Surveillance Program Being Handled Just About As Well As You'd Expect
from the just-another-ho-hum-day-of-bulk-surveillance dept
The US Postal Service has long been the Little Surveillance Agency That Time Forgot. For more than a decade, it has scanned every piece of mail it handles. Its "Mail Isolation and Tracking Control" program went into effect in response to post-9/11 anthrax mailings.
Prior to 2001, it only collected mail data on request. Post-2001, it's much more proactive. The problem with untargeted surveillance efforts is that they dehumanize the millions of people whose mail is scanned on a daily basis. This leads directly to the sort of behavior uncovered by the USPS's Inspector General. When you don't care about your "customers," your work gets sloppy.
These are the safeguards the Post Office has put in place to protect personal information and ensure accountability.
The Postal Inspection Service’s Criminal Investigations Service Center (CISC), the primary administrator of the mail covers program, is responsible for maintaining accountable mail cover documents and Postal Service (PS) Forms 2008 and 2009. PS Form 2008, Letter of Instruction, provides guidance for completing, returning, and safeguarding mail covers. PS Form 2009, Information Regarding Mail Matter, is used to record information from the outside of the mailpiece, such as the sender’s name and address. These forms contain information such as names, addresses, and financial institutions that, if used in the aggregate, could reveal personally identifiable information.Here's what the Inspector General discovered. First off, the USPS isn't compiling its accountability paperwork (the PS forms listed above) in a timely fashion. The paperwork must be sent to the CISC within 60 days of the termination of the mail cover request. For external orders, the forms are supposed to be returned by the law enforcement agency making the request. For internal orders, the forms are handled solely by USPS personnel. The same 60-day time limit applies.
We found that Postal Service personnel or external law enforcement agencies did not return accountable documents for 49 of 75 files (65 percent). As of the date of this review, PS Forms 2009 and 2008 were unaccounted for up to 762 days beyond the mail cover period. We also found accountable documents for 16 mail cover files judgmentally selected from FY 2015 were not returned timely, not returned at all, or not retained in the mail cover file.To add to the problem, the postal employees were closing files despite not having obtained all of the required paperwork.
Postal Inspection Service personnel closed 79 of 120 mail cover files (66 percent) during FYs 2012 through 2014 without PS Forms 2009 being returned… Fifty-one of the 79 mail covers involved preliminary investigations (known as area cases) and the postal inspectors should have returned the documents within 60 days of the end of the mail cover period. For the remaining 28 mail covers, postal inspectors should have returned PS Forms 2009 before CISC officials closed the mail cover files or before the postal inspector closed the investigation.Not only were the investigative files improperly handled, but in-process mail-scanning orders were treated with a similarly cavalier attitude, exposing personal information related to targeted individuals.
During our visit to a facility in the Chicago District, we observed PS Forms 2008, which had the subject’s name and address posted, on the carrier’s casing station. We also found a mail cover request on the supervisor’s desk, which is on the workroom floor and visible to all employees. The manager stated that the supervisor posted the PS Forms 2008 on the carrier’s casing station as a reminder to perform the mail cover.
When not leaving sensitive documents lying around, supervisors were making up their own rules.
[A]t a facility in the Los Angeles District, a mail cover request was approved for one subject; however, the supervisor instructed the carrier to record mail cover information for all persons residing at the address.And, as if to confirm the "lazy government employee" stereotype, this happened:
During our visit at another facility in the New York District, we found an unopened mail cover request in the inbox attached to the outside of the manager’s office door, where it was accessible to all employees.
That's not even the worst of it.
We also noted the mail cover was dated September 21, 2014, and our visit was 129 days past the [order's] end date. The manager stated he was not aware that the mail cover request was in his inbox…It's not really an "inbox" then, is it? It's a black hole. Or a trashcan. Or a happy place where mail cover orders go to escape from the harsh reality of being executed in a timely fashion.
What appears to be a program of massive scope but limited use (if you don't want the government tracking your communications/packages, it seems unlikely you'd use a government agency for delivery) is apparently treated as just another tedious part of the job by USPS personnel -- a job very few want to do correctly, if at all.