If you thought, in light of recent leaks about the National Security Agency's classified data collection programs, that you would start using snail mail again, you should know that mail sent through the U.S. Postal Service is tracked as well.
According to the New York Times, the Postal Service's Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program photographs every piece of paper mail sent through the system. Last year, that would be 160 billion photographed pieces.
Letters wait to be sorted at the Main Post Office on December 19, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
Shannon Richardson is placed into a Titus County Sheriff's car after an initial appearance Friday, June 7, 2013 at the federal building Texarkana, Texas. The FBI says Shannon Richardson admitted sending ricin-tainted letters to President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but only after trying to pin it on her husband. (Photo: AP/The Texarkana Gazette, Curt Youngblood)
According to FBI Agent James Spiropoulos, investigators accessed a Postal Service computer system that “incorporates a Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) programwhich photographs and captures an image of every mail piece that is processed.” Agents were able to obtain front and back images of about 20 mail pieces that had been processed “immediately before the mail piece addressed to Mayor Blo
A review of that mail revealed that each piece carried return addresses listing zip codes in the New Boston area.
A similar analysis of 40 mail pieces that were processed “immediately before and after the mail piece addressed to President Obama” showed that several of those letters listed addresses in two Texas cities near New Boston.
The New York Times' report details another case of snail mail tracking. Leslie James Pickering, who owns a bookstore in Buffalo, New York, and was more than 10 years ago the spokesman for the radical environmental group Earth Liberation Front, found a card accidentally delivered in his mail, showing he was on the feds radar:
“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.
The mail covers program, used to monitor Mr. Pickering, is more than a century old but is still considered a powerful tool. 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.
U.S. Postal Service clerks help customers at the Los Feliz Post Office on February 6, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created in 2001 after the anthrax letter attack and allows for retroactive tracing of mail, as the Smoking Gun showed in the recent ricin case.
“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” Mark Rasch, the former director of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit, told the Times. “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.”
Computer security expert Bruce Schneier told the Times this activity is similar to the recently leaked NSA surveillance programs of phone and Internet metadata.
“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, according to the Times.
Uses of the mail cover program for law enforcement include investigating illegal prostitution, drug trafficking and even Medicare fraud, according to the Times.
Former FBI agent of more than three decades James Wedick called the program "a treasure trove of information."
“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," he added.
Wedick also admitted that the program can be "easily abused." All it takes is a request to the Postal Service, which it can grant or deny, for such information to be obtained. Although these requests don't have judicial oversight, it should be noted that opening and reading mail still requires a warrant.
As for Pickering, he told the Times he is an activist, not a terrorist, and has filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service, the FBI and others for what he believes is improper withholding of his information.
The Times said previous lawsuits against mail covers have not gone well as judges have ruled there is not a reasonable expectation of privacy for information on the outside of an envelope.
Read more about the snail mail tracking program in the New York Times' full article.