Unredacted Postal Service Audit Reveals Extent Of Mail Surveillance

The United States Postal Service has been compiling a database of every Americans’ mail records into a dragnet being made available to law enforcement agencies on command.

Information buried in the United States Postal Service’s annual audit, gleaned last year, revealed that the USPS’ ‘mail covers‘ surveillance program has grown exponentially over the past several years.

Now, an unredacted version of the audit, obtained by the New York Times, sheds more light on the program.

Under the program, a copy is made of every piece of mail sent through every post office. The images are then stored in a database to be at the disposal of law enforcement agencies who might need them at a later date.

Though postal officials are not allowed to open mail and investigate its contents without a warrant, the data being collected allows law enforcement and other government officials to monitor to whom and where every individual is sending mail.

Mail cover is defined by the Internal Revenue Manual as:

The process by which a non-consensual record is made of any data appearing on the outside cover of sealed or unsealed mail; or by which a record is made of the contents of any unsealed mail, as allowed by law, to obtain information to protect national security; locate a fugitive; obtain evidence of the commission or attempted commission of a crime; obtain evidence of a violation or attempted violation of a postal statute; or assist in the identification of property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under law.

As mail cover does not involve the reading of the mail but only information on the outside of the envelope or package that could be read by anyone seeing the item anyway, it is not considered by court precedent to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

At a November 19 hearing before the House of Representatives, USPS Deputy Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb indicated that the agency she oversees approved 99.8 percent of last year’s 6000 outside requests by government officials for citizens’ mail records,  the Washington Post reported.

A redacted version of the audit presented at that hearing noted that, in 13 percent of cases, the mail records requests were approved for inappropriate reasons. 20 percent of the requests were honored without approval from higher-ups, and officials ignored guidelines requiring them to purge records after an expiration date and conduct yearly reviews of the program.

According to SFGate, the U.S. Postal Service approved around 50,000 total requests for citizens’ mail records, including probes by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and internal queries by USPS officials last year.

That’s a huge increase over past years. From 2001 to 2012, the USPS received some 100,000 monitoring requests — an average of about 8,000 per year.

According to the Times, experts say the unredacted audit is the first to provide public details about the program and discloses that the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security are the largest overall users of mail covers – though it is unclear to what extent.

In addition to raising privacy concerns, the audit found that the Postal Inspection Service does not have “sufficient controls” in place to ensure its employees follow the agency’s policies for handling mail covers – and revealed that about 10 percent of requests did not include the dates for the period covered by surveillance, leaving auditors unable to discern if the Postal Service had followed proper procedures.

Additionally, the Times says, 15 percent of the inspectors who handled the mail covers did not have the proper nondisclosure agreements on file for handling classified materials – and in about 32 percent of cases – postal inspectors did not include, as required, the date on which they visited facilities where mail covers are processed.

In another 32 percent of cases, law enforcement agencies did not return documents to the Postal Inspection Service’s Office of Counsel, which handles the mail covers, within the prescribed 60 days after a case was closed.

In response to criticisms of the mail covers program, the USPS has insisted that it authorizes the sharing of sender information with law enforcement agencies only under limited circumstances. The truth however, is that we have no way of knowing as the program has very little oversight and the tracking doesn’t have to be reported to anyone.

“I think they should have to get warrants to get this information,” ACLU and Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic lawyer Frank Askin said. “Law enforcement agencies shouldn’t just be able to go to the Postal Service and ask them to track someone’s communications. It raises serious First Amendment issues.”

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Asa J

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  • Common Sense

    And you worried about meta data….

  • Shawn

    Pardon me, but isn’t the USPS becoming rather irrelevant? 90% of my mail is auto and home insurance offers.

  • Shmuck

    NEWMAN!!

  • Common Sense

    ha ha +2

  • t

    Ummmm….
    You guys know that mail covers are really just an investigative tools to show:
    Who lives at and address
    Who has a specific PO box

    It’s not the earth shattering and as Shawn pointed out….not really all that reliant

  • DeekS

    government recording every single thing you get in the mail… no thats not a complete waist of resources and a violation of privacy at all…

  • Common Sense

    It is, a complete waist of thyme.

  • JC

    This has been going on for years. Stop being so paranoid.

  • Shawn

    Lousy argument. Slavery went on for centuries and longer. Argue the merits and problems. The length of time doesn’t make something right. Note also that the availability of that information has increased thanks to modern IT technology.

  • t

    deek:
    Did I say it wasn’t ?

  • simpleton

    Total waste of resources as anything nefarious is not done through snail mail anymore. Any half-wit criminal knows other methods to perform their duties. Sending it through the mail is idiotic.

  • Shawn

    Or done more anonymously. All they are doing is checking outside packaging.

  • Shawn

    Actually, it is meta data. The tactic would be useless without modern information technology.

  • $uperficial

    WELCOME TO PATRIOT ACT POLICE STATE USA!

  • JAKE

    Welkome to AmeriKa…

  • JAKE

    yeah, the exact writing on all pieces of mail…you happy smoke much?

  • JAKE

    correct RET US ARMY—>>>WTF DID I SERF (!).. FOR?

  • JAKE

    Hey egghead–that DOS NOT MAKE IT RIGHT–WTF IS WRONG WITH YOUR BRAIN?

  • JAKE

    STICK YOUR THYME WHRE the sun don’t shine–idiot

  • JAKE

    AND THE 10 % IS STILL TRACKING YOU LIKE A F DIRTY F PIG..

  • Sai

    1. Full docs: http://s.ai/foia#smc (I’m the original source for the NYT article. Proof: I updated the PDF at your ‘unredacted version’ link to add text pointing to my page.)

    2. USPS denies bulk collection / database of imaging. See this other FOIA (@ same link) from them explaining the difference between mail cover, mail imaging, and MICT: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BzmetJxi-p0VNDJfVDdwdER1Y1E

    I can’t confirm or deny whether that’s true or not, but they have kept a consistent story on that. I asked for more info, but still waiting for a response.

  • Nelson

    The thing is, they’re not JUST doing mail surveillance; they’re doing the same (or worse) with phone calls, email, probably all credit card and Paypal transactions, etc. Apparently they’re creating a dossier on everyone, so that when the time comes, they’ll know who they want to round up as being a potential “enemy” of the state.

  • Shawn

    Not really. What snail mail exchanges do people do now? USPS is dying.

    I’m not saying such monitoring is right. I’m heavily against data mining. But this issue is almost DOA.

  • SineNomine

    A sage comment indeed.

  • RadicalDude

    So corporate oligarchs can make money.

  • SonsofAnarchy5768

    They apparently don’t believe so or else they wouldn’t have bought millions upon millions of bullets!

  • fgt4urights

    Your absolutely correct in your statement…What’s hidden under the iceberg of what was revealed and what is known is nothing to what’s happening and being covered-up. America created Stasi and there doing exactly what Nazi Germany did, but it’s being hidden. Devices such as Stingray/Dirtboxes are part of these crimes and these are weapons of oppression when your targeted…Everyone has open files…forever… in secret.. Cointelpro2.0/Gangstalking is real and it’s part of their covert harassment programs which are in place murdering and covering-up their crimes.. Their doing things 100 different ways and they know it’s fully illegal..The real police state isn’t the criminal corrupt ones posted on this site…it’s the ones you don’t see operating on you, setting you up….America’s secret Stasi…

  • Sai

    Re. what mail covers provide: you’re flat wrong. See USPS doc at my comment below. Mail cover gives investigators copies of the outside of all USPS mail to/from a given address/person.

  • Robin

    Well I have nothing to worry about because the only thing I send through the mail are bills and Cards for certain holidays and birthdays.