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.
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 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 follows:
Mail cover is the process by which a nonconsensual 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 record, The Washington Post reported.
An internal audit presented at the hearing noted that, in 13 percent of cases, the 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 US 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.
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. The tracking doesn’t have to be reported to anyone.
Last week The National Security Agency revealed it violated US law for over a decade with the unauthorized surveillance of domestic citizens’ overseas communications, according to highly redacted reports obtained by the ACLU in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
According to documents posted on the NSA website, the examples of violations included obtaining data illegally from individuals electronic devices without a warrant, sending data on Americans to unauthorized recipients, storing such data on unprotected computers and retaining them after they were meant to be destroyed between the years 2001 and 2013.
Add that to the years of leaked information regarding the routine abuses of the post-9/11 surveillance state provided by Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and others and you have a public that isn’t going to tolerate “oh don’t worry, just trust us” as a acceptable response from their government.