NYT: US Government Tracks Snail Mail Too

NYT: US Government Tracks Snail Mail Too

Email and phone call metadata certainly isn’t private, but maybe you were holding out hope that good old-fashioned snail mail somehow avoided big brother’s living gaze. The New York Times is reporting that’s all being tracked too. Surprise, surprise.

It’s by no means a new development; it’s been going on for years. But now the details of the whole system are coming to light. Fortunately, the sanctity of postal mail’s contents is only defilable if there’s a warrant involved. There’s none needed to track all the sweet, sweet metadata though.

The New York Times explains:

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.

The surveillance system is known as the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, and was instated in 2001 after the mail-borne anthrax attacks that killed five people. Since then, the program’s been responsible for photographing each and every piece of mail the US Postal Service handles. There were over 160 billion pieces last year.

All this is only possible with a little help from the US Postal Service itself, of course. Again, from the Times:

For mail cover requests, law enforcement agencies simply submit a letter to the Postal Service, which can grant or deny a request without judicial review. Law enforcement officials say the Postal Service rarely denies a request. In other government surveillance program, such as wiretaps, a federal judge must sign off on the requests. The mail cover surveillance requests are granted for about 30 days, and can be extended for up to 120 days.

Surveillance like this can be initiated either for reasons of national security or suspicion of more vanilla criminal activity. Although everyone involved is supposed to stay quiet about the numbers, anonymous sources told the Times there are about 15,000-20,000 criminal activity tracking requests per year. National security requests? Who knows.

It’s a cold comfort that no one is reading your mail (or email, or transcripts of your phone calls) considering how revealing your metadata can be. For most of us, snail mail isn’t much more than a vehicle for junk mail and the occasional package anyway, but it’s still disquieting to find out about it. [New York Times]