More Government Snooping: The Postal Service Is Spying On You Too!

The NSA isn't the only federal agency collecting your metadata. It turns out the good ole U.S. Postal Service has long been engaged in its share of low-tech domestic surveillance. As the New York Times reports today, a Buffalo, NY bookstore owner by the name of Leslie James Pickering was recently startled to discover his snail mail was being monitored by the F.B.I. with the help of the U.S.P.S. It happened by mistake, shockingly enough for the Postal Service. In his stack of mail, Pickering noticed a handwritten card directing postal workers to pay particular attention to letters and packages sent to his home, and to show them to their supervisor for copying before delivery. It also said "Confidential" highlighted in green. Oops.

Pickering was, to say the least, taken aback. “It was a bit of a shock to see it,” he told The Times. Turns out, ten years ago he was an activist of sorts, a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, which was labeled as a radical environmental group by the F.B.I. 

While high-tech spying on the scale that Edward Snowden recently revealed is new, low-tech spying on the part of the Postal Service has been around for a while.  For a long time it was a surveillance system called Mail Covers, The Times reports, but that has been replaced by a much more ambitious program ominously called the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, "in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of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 — about 160 billion pieces last year." This program was created after the anthrax attacks of 2001, which killed 5 people. It was used in the recent ricin letter investigation. Supposedly, postal workers only record the outside of letters and packages before delivering them. They can't open your mail without a warrant. What is causing concern is just how sweeping the reach of this program has become.

As reported in the Times:

“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” said Mark D. Rasch, the former director of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit, who worked on several fraud cases using mail covers. “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.”

Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert and an author, said whether it was a postal worker taking down information or a computer taking images, the program was still 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,” he said.

Crimes from drug smuggling, to tracking ricin letters to Medicare fraud have apparently been solved with the help of this program. 

From the Times again:

In a criminal complaint filed June 7 in Federal District Court in Eastern Texas, the F.B.I. said a postal investigator tracing the ricin letters was able to narrow the search to Shannon Guess Richardson, an actress in New Boston, Tex., by examining information from the front and back images of 60 pieces of mail scanned immediately before and after the tainted letters sent to Mr. Obama and Mr. Bloomberg showing return addresses near her home. Ms. Richardson had originally accused her husband of mailing the letters, but investigators determined that he was at work during the time they were mailed.


“It’s a treasure trove of information,” said James J. Wedick, a former F.B.I. agent who spent 34 years at the agency and who said 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 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.”

But, he said: “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.”

And of course, it has been abused. Infamous Arizona anti-immigration Sheriff Joe Arpaio used it to harass and track his political enemies. In 1973, a New Jersey high school student  wrote a letter to the Socialist Workers Party which was traced by the F.B.I. through mail monitoring. For Pickering's part, it must have been that environmental terror... er.... activism in his past.(Terrorism and activism seeming to have become interchangeable now in law enforcement circles.) Now a family man, Pickering's acts of civil disobedience in the service of a cause he is passionate about are now behind him. “I’m just a guy who runs a bookstore and has a wife and a kid,” he told the Times.


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