Yes, ‘Big Brother’ Is Monitoring Your Snail-Mail Too

by Elizabeth on July 26, 2013

in Privacy

Not many people write letters anymore. Many may have thought of returning to the old-school communication tactic when they learned of the NSA’s program that pulls private information from email and other online sources. But as we are learning, “snail mail” may not be any safer from the eyes of Big Brother.

According to the New York Times, the U.S. Postal Service has been monitoring some mail for over a century, and in recent years began photographing every single piece of mail that’s processed in the country—around 160 billion last year alone.

mailboxThere are two programs of mail surveillance. Mail covers is a system by which the mail carrier copies information from the front and back of envelopes and packages before delivering them to a certain person. That information is shared usually with a requesting law enforcement group or the feds on issues of national security. The other program, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, simply scans and photographs everything.

The latter system is a sort of better-safe-than-sorry approach. They are basically compiling a data source of all of our mail contacts—similar to what they are doing electronically.

“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” said Mark D. Rasche formerly of the Justice Department’s computer crimes unit in the fraud division. “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.”

While officials can point to a few cases where the program has helped solve a crime, it hardly seems worth the intrusion. Interestingly, supporters of the system use the same sort of language that critics do, just looking at it from a different perspective.

“It’s a treasure trove of information,” said former F.B. I. agent James J. Wedick, who said he used mail covers in a number of investigations. “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.”

There are no indications how long the USPS keeps the information. We do know, however, that they cannot open your mail without a warrant, that is, unless they can justify it as an emergency or a foreign intelligence case, as former President George W. Bush affirmed in a 2007 statement.

If the police, feds, or mailman wants your information, it’s becoming increasingly clear that they can easily get it. More accurately—they likely already have it.

About

Elizabeth Renter is a freelance writer and editor who writes about criminal justice issues.

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