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U.S. Postal Service Could Be Using This 'Investigative Tool' to Collect and Store Your Information

(Photo: AP)

The U.S. Postal Service approved 49,000 mail cover requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own Postal Inspection Unit, but many of those requests were approved without sufficient reasoning or proper written authorization.

A display of PO boxes in the old Cedar Falls Post Office Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (AP Photo/Waterloo Courier, Matthew Putney)

Mail covers are investigative tools used to record information on the outside of envelopes and other pieces of mail.

They're sometimes used by law enforcement agencies as a way to protect national security, track down fugitives, find evidence or help identify property and assets.

"The U.S. Postal Service is responsible for recording and forwarding the data to the Postal Inspection Service for further processing. Postal Service and law enforcement officials must ensure compliance with privacy policies to protect the privacy of customers, employees, and other individuals’ information," according to an audit by the Postal Service inspector general.

But personnel did not always follow the privacy policies put in place.

"Of the 196 external mail cover requests we reviewed, 21 percent were approved without written authorization and 13 percent were not adequately justified or reasonable grounds were not transcribed accurately. Also, 15 percent of the inspectors who conducted [redacted] mail covers did not have the required nondisclosure form on file," the IG's report stated.

Evidence for only one "periodic review" were obtainable from the past three fiscal years and the agency did not have the appropriate procedures in place to ensure those reviews occurred at least once a year.  Further, personnel did not always handle and process mail cover requests in a timely manner and, in some cases, documents related to mail cover requests were not returned to their original program files.

(Photo: AP) (Photo: AP)

In addition to mail covers, the Postal Service also uses a system called "Mail Imaging, " in which computers take photographs of the exterior of every piece of paper mail transferred in the U.S. The system is supposed to be used as a processing tool. However, law enforcement agencies have used it as a "surveillance system" to request stored images of mail pieces sent from and received by people they're investigating, New York Times reported Monday.

In response to these findings, the inspector general made two recommendations:

"We recommended management improve controls to ensure responsible personnel process mail covers in a timely manner and conduct periodic reviews of the mail covers program. Also, we recommended management implement system controls to ensure data integrity in the Postal Inspection Service mail cover application," the report states.

The inspector general's office first posted the audit in May but it did so without public announcement, thus getting little attention at the time.

The Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service did not immediately respond to questions from TheBlaze asking what its recommendations actually mean for the agency's day-to-day operations.

(H/T: New York Times)

Follow Jon Street (@JonStreet) on Twitter

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