The U.S. Postal Service Is Monitoring Your Snail Mail

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The U.S. government is not content to monitor your phone calls and your Internet activity; it’s now reading your snail mail, too.

A story in the New York Times published Wednesday, July 3, tells the story of Buffalo, New York resident, Leslie James Pickering. Pickering reports that last September he noticed “something odd in his mail:” a “handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home,” the Times story claims.

The card – a picture of which appears in the Times story – appears to read: “Show all mail to supv” – supervisor – “for copying prior to going out on the street.” Pickering’s name was written on the card, as well as the word “Confidential,” written in green ink. Apparently, Pickering was the unwitting target of a “longtime surveillance system” theTimes calls “mail covers.”

It doesn’t stop there, however. While snail mail surveillance has been a tool of law enforcement for over a century, the program that targeted Pickering is called Mail Isolation Control and Tracking. As part of this surveillance tactic, the “Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States – about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.”

When combined, the NSA and the U.S. Postal Service can keep every form of communication – electronic and conventional – under constant surveillance, without probable cause. This last fact is a direct violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment mandates:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The New York Times describes how the mail monitoring program works:

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.

Mark D. Rasch, a former director of the Department of Justice’s computer crime unit is quoted in the Times story exposing the extent of the snooping. “In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” Rasch said, in the Times piece. “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.”

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