Many Americans were outraged when they learned that our government had been spying on our all of our phone calls and emails. If that wasn’t enough, we learned that they have also been spying on our Internet usage, monitoring the sights we visit and our online transactions.
In today’s electronic age, the government was using all of the technology they had to spy on Americans. Nothing electronic was safe from federal prying eyes. Some people have insisted on using the US Postal Service to do most of their business, bill paying and correspondence just so that hackers can’t get their information and to prevent the government from spying on them.
If you are one of those, then take notice that your snail mail is not safe either.
Over 10 years ago, Leslie James Pickering was involved with a radical environmental group known as the Earth Liberation Front. Pickering was their spokesman at the time. Since then, he became the owner of a bookstore in Buffalo, New York. One day, Pickering collected his mail from his mailbox and discovered a Post Office memo that had been mistakenly left with his mail. The memo was alerting postal employees to monitor his mail.
A spying system approved by the government years ago and broadened after 9-11 allows the US Postal Service to keep track of all incoming and outgoing mail from people of interest. They keep records of all people who send you mail and who you send mail to. They also record places of origin and destination.
Mark Rasch, involved in several mail fraud cases explained the supposedly secret program:
“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime. 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.”
The US Postal Service now photographs the outside of every piece of mail it processes each year – around 160 billion pieces annually.
At the request of law enforcement agencies, postal workers take pictures of the letters and packages before they are delivered according to a New York Times report.
The information is then stored for an indefinite period of time in the event a law enforcement official requests it. Each year, tens of thousands of pieces of mail are subjected to further scrutiny.
Although the government is gathering ‘cover’ information on our mail, opening and reading the contents of a letter requires a court-ordered warrant, but in the case of ‘mail cover’ requests, law enforcement agencies submit a letter to the Postal Service, which “rarely denies a request.”
Although the ‘mail covers’ program has been around for nearly a century, its updated successor, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) program, was created in the aftermath of the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers.
MICT requests are separated into two categories: those related to possible criminal activity and those that are meant to protect national security. Requests based on suspected criminal activity average 15,000 to 20,000 per year, unnamed law enforcement officials told the Times.
The number of requests for mail covers related to the fight against terrorism has not been made public.
Although law enforcement officials must have warrants to open private correspondence, former President George W. Bush signed off on a document in 2007 that gave the federal government the authority to open mail without warrants in “emergencies or in foreign intelligence cases.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigations revealed the existence of MICT in the course of a 2012 investigation over ricin-laced letters mailed to President Barack Obama and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
At the very least, the program shows that traditional mail is held up to the same kind of scrutiny that the NSA has given to phone calls, e-mail and internet services.
“It’s a treasure trove of information,” James J. Wedick, a former FBI agent told The New York Times. “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.”
But, he added: “It can be easily abused because it’s so easy to use and you don’t have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form.”
Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert and an author, called the program an invasion of privacy.
“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 told the Times.
The surveillance requests on mail covers are granted for about 30 days, and can be extended for up to 120 days.
It seems that no form of communication is safe anymore and that our government is busily engaged in spying on every aspect of our lives. Privacy is a thing of the past as Big Brother watches and listens.