Post Office Tracks Your Mail (Often Without Proper Authorization)


Public Domain

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.

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  1. While I object to the storage of the images, this is not apples to apples for the NSA spying.

    The key difference is – I knowingly gave the letters/packages in question to the post office and have no real expectation that they not know about the communication metadata. It is, after all, essential information to do their purported job of routing said parcel. If you said they also got UPS, FedEx and DHL to give them all of their metadata too, you would start to get into Analogue NSA territory.

    1. And by “also got”, you mean “threatened their executives with hefty fines and potential jail time if they don’t comply”.

  2. I can only imagine all the legitimate state uses to which these data can be applied. Why, they must be limitless!

    Limitless – like the state’s ability and actual act of spying on us constantly. Fuckers.

  3. The NYT comments include the usual “I have nothing to hide” derp.

  4. People still use the USPS for communication?

    1. Unlike the other parcel carriers, they can get inside my building and drop of packages. So my preferred method of delivery is have a backbone provider (UPS or FedEx) deliver to the post office, who brings it the last mile. (these are usually called ‘smartpost’ deliveries). It saves on trying to run down the box after it hits the depot.

    2. Yep — *elderly* potential terrorists.

  5. Bullshit. They can’t even track packages. They routinely report my packages delivered hours or days before they actually show up at my house.

    1. “Hmm. We’d better keep tabs on this ‘Brandon’ guy.”

  6. Fun fact: A Mail Cover is how they caught and arrested one of the biggest dealers on Silk Road.

  7. “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.”

    Until recently, the NSA was prohibited from collecting information on Americans. The USPS has been doing it for 100 years. You need to cut them some slack, man. They haven’t quite reached the competency level of the USPS. But, don’t worry, they will get there.

  8. Why do you think the Founders gave the FedGov the power of the post? The purpose of the USPS was ALWAYS to keep an eye on you.

    Should’ve listened to Spooner… and let him start his private mail service.

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