The National Security Agency's (NSA) snoopy ways with our phone calls is headed to no less than three federal appeals courts, but long before mass electronic surveillance was a glimmer in a bureaucratic voyeur's eye, the Post Office was already skimming and scanning through our mail to track our communications. Unshockingly, it turns out that the folks who manage to lose your mail and deliver your lingerie catalogs well-thumbed aren't so good at respecting even the shaky privacy protections intended to regulate when and how correspondence is supposed to be monitored.
Little known by most Americans, the Post Office has been tracking mail for a century. These days, it photographs and stores images of the outside of every piece of mail sent as a matter of course, and can target specific individuals for "mail covers"—special scrutiny of the outside of their correspondence, including recording names and return addresses of the people with whom they exchange mail. But that scrutiny is supposed to abide by certain rules.
Yeah…well. In a May audit, the United States Postal Service Inspector General revealed:
responsible personnel did not always handle and process mail cover requests in a timely manner and documents relating to the covers were not always returned to the program files as required. Of the 196 external mail cover requests we reviewed, 21 percent were approved without written authorization and 13 percent were not adequately justified or reasonable grounds were not transcribed accurately. Also, 15 percent of the inspectors who conducted [redacted] mail covers did not have the required nondisclosure form on file.
After examining three fiscal years worth of mail covers, with 49,000 conducted in 2013 alone, the inspector general cautioned that, "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."
No doubt. The New York Times points out that the Post Office has been sufficiently sloppy about checking justifications for surveillance that it has been sucked into political espionage.
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.
That's a reference to the shenanigans of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Andrew Thomas, who did their best to turn Maricopa County into a banana republic (Arpaio is still hard at it). They used information gleaned, in part, from the mail surveillance to determine targets for police raids intended to destroy a county supervisor who was a thorn in their sides.
The tactic didn't work, but not for lack of trying.
Defense attorneys' snail mail communications with defendants have also been targeted for scrutiny, in a way that potentially stacks the deck in favor of prosecutors.
Basically, it's all the concerns you have about intrusive NSA snoopiness, applied to an older form of communications, by a perhaps less competent bureaucracy.