A fascinating read in the New York Times today details the century-old “mail covers” program and the new “Mail Isolation Control and Tracking” initiative that essentially gather metadata about your snail mail with the same intentions of NSA programs such as PRISM that do that with your electronic communication.
Under the programs, “Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.
“Together, the two programs show that snail mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.”
Under mail covers, When asked by law enforcement, postal officials track a persons mail for a period of time. The post office rarely turns down a request, the Times says, and includes “tens of thousands” of items a year.
Mail Isolation Control and Tracking was born of the anthrax scare a few years ago. It photocopies the outside of mail — 160 billion pieces last year alone, the Times said.
“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” said Mark D. Rasch, the former director of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit, who worked on several fraud cases using mail covers. “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.”
Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert and an author, said whether it was a postal worker taking down information or a computer taking images, the program was still 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 said.