The National Security Administration's sweeping surveillance of phone and internet correspondence may be reliant on cutting edge software, ever-increasing server speed and massive storage capacity. However, for years the government has been conducting sweeping, low-tech surveillance in the back rooms of your neighborhood Post Office.
A New York Times report sheds light on the ongoing and prevalent snooping by the US Postal Service. The initial practice, over a century old and known as "mail covers," targets individuals based on requests by law enforcement officials, recording the information on the outside of letters or parcels delivered to that individual. Reportedly, tens of thousands of mail items undergo this scrutiny each year.
That practice has since grown into the "vastly more expansive effort," entitled the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which "Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States," amounting to roughly 160 billion items last year.
This "highly-secretive" and "sweeping" program enables the USPS to retroactively track any mail correspondence throughout the US.
"Together," writes the Times, "the two programs show that snail mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail."
“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,” says computer security expert Bruce Schneier.
“Looking at just 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 on with a subpoena,” said former F.B.I. agent James J. Wedick.
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But, he added, “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.”
The Times reports:
For mail cover requests, law enforcement agencies simply submit a letter to the Postal Service, which can grant or deny a request without judicial review. Law enforcement officials say the Postal Service rarely denies a request. In other government surveillance programs, such as wiretaps, a federal judge must sign off on the requests.
The mail cover surveillance requests are granted for about 30 days, and can be extended for up to 120 days.
According to the Times, individuals who have attempted a legal challenge to the 'snail-mail' spy program have generally failed because, the judges reasoned, "there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for information contained on the outside of a letter."
Further, both the Bush and Obama administrations have used the mail cover court rulings to "justify the N.S.A.’s surveillance programs, saying the electronic monitoring amounts to the same thing as a mail cover," the Times adds.