The U.S. Postal Service recently confirmed that it takes pictures of every letter and parcel mailed in the country and at times provides these pictures to law enforcement to aid in criminal cases. These approximately 160 billion pieces of mail are photographed at 200 USPS processing plants around the nation. Postmaster General, Patrick R. Donahoe, said in an interview with the Associated Press that the images are taken primarily for sorting purposes and only kept for 30 days before being destroyed.
The postal service confirmed giving some photographs to law enforcement agencies upon request. Specifically, this included images of the letters containing ricin that were sent to both President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Investigative agencies such as the FBI and the DEA view this postal information as a vital component of many criminal cases.
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The photographs are a part of the USPS “Mail Isolation and Tracking” program. This program was implemented as a response to the 2001 anthrax attacks that led to the deaths of five people. Prior to this 2001 program, the USPS began an even more expansive surveillance program known as “mail covers” which involves taking down the information visible on the outside of letters and packages. Going further than this and actually opening the mail before delivery would require a warrant. Many are becoming concerned over this blurred line between national security interests and the individual right to privacy.
In the past two months since Edward Snowden’s leaks, the nation has been fixed on National Security Administration (NSA) “eavesdropping” on citizens’ electronic communications. Now, with this information released from the postmaster general, it now seems as if this “low tech” eavesdropping is just as prevalent.
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The postal service stated that they only give their photographs to law enforcement at request, but it is important to note that mail cover information is not subject to judicial oversight. All a law enforcement agency has to do to get this information is make a written request to the Postal Inspection Service. These programs allow the postal service, and consequently law enforcement agencies, to not only monitor the mail of suspected criminals, but all individuals.
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Since mail covers can be requested of any individuals, many are calling this an invasion of privacy. Bruce Schneier, an author and computer security expert, stated that “collecting the information on the outside of your mail, the metadata, if you will, of names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations…gives the government a pretty good map of your contacts, even if they aren’t reading the contents.”
The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant validated by probable cause. While the USPS cannot open mail prior to delivery without a warrant supported by probable cause, they have justified photographing mail and even supplying law enforcement agencies with pictures and data of just about everything except the contents of these parcels.
There have been many reports of abuse of the mail cover program, including some successful federal lawsuits.