The United States Postal Service (USPS) logged over 160 billion pieces of snail mail just last year. The USPS records the outside of every single piece of mail processed in the country, enabling employees to retroactively track correspondence at the request of law enforcement and national security agents.
Mail Isolation Control & Tracking Program
The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program is over a old, but it recently was cast into the spotlight when the FBI cited it in its investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and New York Mayor Bloomberg. The clandestine program uses computers to photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail processed in the US. This comes out to around 160 billion pieces last year alone. It is still unclear for how long the government saves these images. The program was created after anthrax letter attacks in late 2001 killed five people, including two postal inspectors.
The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program is the lower-tech counterpart to the formerly top secret surveillance program that collects the records of all phone calls and emails processed by US firms. Details recorded by this even more clandestine program headed up by the National Security Agency (NSA) include the time the communication was made, the initiating location and the identities of the sender and receiver.
No Reasonable Expectation of Privacy: The US Mail Covers Program
Government attorneys have argued that programs inspecting the outside contents of snail mail are, in fact, legal, since there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy for information printed on an envelope. Defenders of the more recent phone and email records collection program have made similar arguments concerning the “metadata” related to electronic communications. However, critics warn that this mail inspection program may have the potential to take things too far.
According to Mark D. Rasch, former director of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit, “In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime. Now it seems to be ‘Let’s record everyone’s mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.’ Essentially you’ve added mail covers on millions of Americans.” Rasch has also worked on several fraud cases using mail covers.
While investigators must acquire a warrant to read the inside of a letter, obtaining detailed exterior information collected under an even older “mail covers” program requires that only a form be filed. A judge’s order isn’t even necessary.
The mail covers program is over a century old, but it 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, as opening the mail would require a warrant. The information is then sent to the law enforcement agency that made the request. Tens of thousands of pieces of snail mail each year undergo this process.
For mail cover requests law enforcement agencies are required to submit a letter to the USPS, which can grant or deny a request without judicial review. Law enforcement officials say the USPS very rarely denies a request. In other government surveillance programs, such as for wiretaps, a federal judge must sign off on the requests.
Mail cover surveillance requests are granted for about 30 days and can be extended for up to 120 days. There are two kinds of mail covers: 1) Those related to criminal activity and 2) Those requested to protect national security. Criminal activity requests average 15,000 to 20,000 per year, according to law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited by law from discussing them. The number of requests for antiterrorism mail covers has not been revealed to the public.
According to Bruce Schneier, computer security expert and author, whether it is a postal worker recording information, or a computer taking images, the programs still constitute an invasion of privacy.
“Basically, they are doing the same thing as the other programs, collecting the information on the outside of your mail, the metadata, if you will, of names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations, which gives the government a pretty good map of your contacts, even if they aren’t reading the contents,” commented Schneier.
However, law enforcement agencies have a different take. “It’s a treasure trove of information,” said James J. Wedick, a former FBI agent who spent 34 years at the agency and reported that 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 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 with a subpoena.”
However, Wedick admits, “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.”
This article introduces the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program and the mail covers program, which have been run by the United States Postal Service (USPS) for a decade and a century, respectively. While they are purportedly used for counterterrorism activities, critics argue that both programs constitute a serious invasion of privacy.
CIPP Exam Preparation
In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/United States (CIPP/US), a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:
- Federal enforcement actions (I.B.e.)
- Data retention and disposal (I.C.f.)
- Access to communications (III.A.b.)
- National security and privacy (III.B.)