Don't worry, the U.S. government is tracking your snail mail, too

Don't worry, the U.S. government is tracking your snail mail, too

Summary: And here you were worried about your e-mail inbox. How's that for big data?

TOPICS: Government, Security
Photo: msakr/Flickr

The U.S. Postal Service, an independent agency of the U.S. federal government, photographed the exterior of about 160 billion pieces of mail it processed last year under a secret surveillance program first introduced in the wake of anthrax attacks in 2001, according to a new report.

The New York Times' Ron Nixon reports on the USPS' "mail covers" and "Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program," which together give the government a "sweeping" view of the communications sent between its citizens.

He reports:

The mail covers program, used to monitor Mr. Pickering, is more than a century old but is still considered a powerful tool. At the request of law enforcement officials, postal workers record information from the outside of letters and parcels before they are delivered. (Actually opening the mail requires a warrant.) The information is sent to whatever law enforcement agency asked for it. Tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this scrutiny.

The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers. Highly secret, it seeped into public view last month when the F.B.I. cited it in its investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It enables the Postal Service to retroactively track mail correspondence at the request of law enforcement. No one disputes that it is sweeping.

"It is not known how long the government saves the images," Nixon adds.

As with the recent scandal over the widespread surveillance of telephone and digital communications by the U.S. National Security Administration, the key issue here is how the program has broadened considerably since its inception: a tool once used actively to investigate only those people suspected of committing a crime is now used more defensively, to record as much data as possible.

That information includes the names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations of a piece of mail, according to the report. That gives the government "a pretty good map of your contacts," according to one of Nixon's sources, even if the agency isn't actually reading the contents of the envelope or package. 

A mail cover request can be granted for up to 120 days for the purpose of either "criminal activity" and "national security." Challenges to them have failed because courts do not consider there to be a reasonable expectation of privacy for the exterior of a piece of mail.

Topics: Government, Security

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • Put it this way

    It's one thing for the Postal Service (an agency of the U.S. government) to keep track of who's mailing whom and to share what it has with other agencies; quite another for the Justice Department to demand shipping records from Federal Express and UPS without probable cause.

    If you send a paper letter, then you know who's handling it; if you don't want the Feds to know about it, then maybe you hire a private courier.
    John L. Ries
  • Put it this way II

    Well John, it also could happen that the NSA can access private couriers too, there´s no guarantee of privacy in the US anymore. By the way all my mail is available to be surveilled, though absolutely boring
    • You can always start putting wax seals on your letters

      They won't necessarily stop them from being opened, but they'll make it painfully obvious if they've been tampered with.

      But my point was that it's almost certainly constitutional for the feds to use their own records for investigative purposes (and the USPS is a federal agency), but demanding the records of private businesses without probable cause definitely violates the Fourth Amendment.
      John L. Ries
  • Private Courier?

    Wouldn't Verizon, AT&T and all the other phone companies who are dutifully handing over your phone records to the Feds qualify as private companies? So I don't see why FedEx and UPS would be any different.
    • Re "Private Courier?"

      He's not talking about PUBLIC couriers, he's talking about PRIVATE couriers. SMALL-TIME companies that only deliver LOCALLY or at most regionally.

      Yes, NSA, etc., could serve such entities with national security letters. But when you consider that many of those companies only serve one metropolitan area or at most a few (e.g., covering Dallas, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio--Texas has 254 counties and literally over 3,000 cities and towns), serving dozens of letters and tracking all the responses would be too labor-intensive even for NSA.
      • Actually...

        I meant individuals who will hand carry your messages to their intended recipients. It would definitely be expensive, but if you *really* don't want the feds to know who you're corresponding with, you may well find it worth the money.
        John L. Ries
  • US On It's Last Leg

    What is the end game, you ask? Obama wants complete control and never ending power. This may be as the NWO leader or an American dictator. Release just enough scandals to cause unrest. Remain untouchable by claiming ignorance or stonewalling. Build a support network of Czars and cronies to support your end game in secret. Have your leftist advisors control their agenda. Go to bed with Media and Hollywood to support your views.
    Obama's plan is coming to a head and we will see if Americans can be jolted into civil disobedience. Obama is ready with as many bullets and guns arming Home Land Security as they need. Any organized opposition with be squashed by NSA snooping. All of Obama's plans are in place and him calling Catholics divisive is just a glimpse of how bad this will get. When he declares Marshall Law due to the unrest, the constitution and elections will no longer exist.
    • I'm still wondering....

      if the libs will ever see it?
      While judging Bush 8 years they endorse a tyrant that makes bush look like an amateur.
      • Don't forget...

        ... the largest power grab this country has ever seen happened during Dubya's term. Hell, even the office of the VP received power it never enjoyed previously.
  • Oh snap

    So now these government stooges have a profile of all the people and political organizations I've corresponded with. As well as my mistress, therapist, doctor, relatives, etc.

    Maybe I should tell them to write my biography for me so I can read it before I die.
  • Don't Blame Obama Idiot

    I worked processing in the Postal Service for 27 years, and they started photographing all letter mail thirty years ago. This is not something that started with Obama, nor can we blame Bush. This actually began with the conservative God, Ronald Reagan. Your revisionism is not going to fly here and you jacks supported the Patriot Act which just codified their internal spying. America has been spying on its citizens for as long as there has been an America, and there is not a damn thing anyone can do to stop it. Simple question to all who think otherwise: Why the hell would an infant need a social security number?
    • The safest assumption anyone should make...

      Is that anything that can be digitally monitored is in fact being monitored. It's kind of funny watching everyones privacy bubble "illusion" being popped.
      • Just a few years ago ...

        I remember when lots of pundits were talking about how technology and the internet were going to lead to new heights of democracy and liberty, especially for people living in authoritarian regimes. Now it turns out those tools are being used against common citizens by our own home-grown authoritarians.

        There was a paper in 2005 (closely circulated) that predicted much of this. Some things are not quite here yet, like always on GPS for both phones and cars. But most of the rest of the blanket surveillance tools are now in place. The report predicted that USGOV would spend $50 Billion by 2020 on IT systems to collect and analyze the data down to the citizen level, but some estimates say that they have spent more than that already. Combining everything from internet traces to credit card details and even utility smart-meter info, your electronic dossier can yield details about your life that you didn't even realize.

        And the social/behavioral analytics are improving by leaps and bounds. The concepts of preemptive law enforcement dovetail nicely with the amount of the new analytic and predictive capabilities of these tools. "Profiling" may be a dirty word politically, but it is being raised to a whole new level on the law enforcement front.
        terry flores
  • In Capitalist America,

    you have no privacy.
  • Snail Mail

    Well, I guess this could partially explain why the mail is so slow and why the post office loses so much money . . .
  • 1984 Anyone??????

    Didn't Orwell predict this in the book "1984"?????????? Maybe Bush wasn't a saint BUT compared to the current regime, he should be polishing his halo. You clowns can love this bozo( current leader) but I can see the horns!

    You wanted change? I hope you like the change you voted for!!! How many more lies from this regime before the light comes on????? My God people, this has been one massive lie after another since this guy drew his first breath outside his mother's womb!