U.S. Postal Service Is Logging All Mail For Law Enforcement

Every piece of mail you send and receive is being logged by the Postal Service.

USPS Mail

Every piece of mail you send is being logged and photographed by the Post Office:

WASHINGTON — Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: A handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.

“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.

“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Mr. Pickering’s mail but told him nothing else.

As the world focuses on the high-tech spying of the National Security Agency, the misplaced card offers a rare glimpse inside the seemingly low-tech but prevalent snooping of the United States Postal Service.

Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, but that is only a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which 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.

The mail covers program, used to monitor Mr. Pickering, is more than a century old but is still considered a powerful tool. 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 Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers. Highly secret, it seeped into public view last month when the F.B.I. cited it in its investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It enables the Postal Service to retroactively track mail correspondence at the request of law enforcement. No one disputes that it is sweeping.

“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.

But law enforcement officials said mail covers and the automatic mail tracking program are invaluable, even in an era of smartphones and e-mail.

The article is correct to describe this as essentially a snail mail version of the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance programs, and indeed its a program that predates what the NSA was doing by many decades. The difference, of course, is that we now live an era where the technology exists to make a program that was once used in a limited manner to track individual suspects into something that is capable of tracking every single piece of mail sent and received in the United States. They may not know what is in that mail, but they will at least know where it was mailed from, who mailed it (if there is a return address), where it is being mailed to, and perhaps other information that can be extracted just from an observation of the exterior of the envelope or package. That’s a tremendous amount of data, and it points out quite starkly that when you drop something in a mailbox, you’re essentially advertising to the world who you’re communicating with, what magazines you receive, and where you order products from.

Much like the NSA metadata, there don’t seem to be any Constitutional issues here. Once you place a piece of mail in a mailbox, you can’t seriously claim to have a legitimate expectation of privacy as to what’s written on the outside of the envelope. The contents, of course, are a different story and ought to require a warrant for law enforcement to gain access to, but the “metadata” of who you sent the envelope do doesn’t have the same protection. That said, the combination of the logging with the technology to retain, and potentially track, that data over long periods of time is something that ought to concern all of us. There are serious privacy concerns, as well as questions about what happens to this data once it is collects it. Who has access to it? Who long is it is maintained? When can it be accessed and under what circumstances? These are the kind of questions that we wouldn’t even know to ask if programs like this didn’t become public knowledge.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, Privacy, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. edmondo says:

    But, but but stonetools told me that the government would NEVER snoop on American citizens. Looks like he was about as right on this as his other Obama-pologies.




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  2. anjin-san says:

    @ edmondo

    Can you show us some of the comments you made expressing alarm about the surveillance state back when Bush was creating it? You know, back before Obama became the Commander Negro In Chief…




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  3. edmondo says:

    @anjin-san:

    Actually, I voted for a guy who opposed Bush’s surveillance state — until he won the election back in 2008.




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  4. walt moffett says:

    As you say, this nothing new just like the database of who receives mail where, or the Border Search exception where overseas mail can be opened.




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  5. stonetools says:

    @edmondo:

    The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers.

    Note the year the program began. Who was President then?
    Last name begins with B, I think.
    It’ll come to me.




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  6. edmondo says:

    @stonetools:

    and who the fuck continues it today? Oh I forgot, the GOP “forced” Obama to do it.




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  7. edmondo says:

    @stonetools:

    Hey O-pologist! It happened last month. Who was president then? Starts with an O I believe. I’m sure it will come to you since he’s never done anything you ever disagreed with




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  8. stonetools says:

    There are serious privacy concerns, as well as questions about what happens to this data once it is collects it. Who has access to it? Who long is it is maintained? When can it be accessed and under what circumstances? These are the kind of questions that we wouldn’t even know to ask if programs like this didn’t become public knowledge.

    Do you know that the government knows not only who you send mail to , but :
    Where you were born?
    What car you drive?
    -and-get this-WHERE YOU LIVE?

    Let’s face it, the government has information on us in various databases-and they can do so legally. I don’t see this as any different than other government record databases.




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  9. edmondo says:

    I don’t see this as any different than other government record databases.

    You will, the day after a Republican moves into the White House again.




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  10. michael reynolds says:

    And the harm caused by the government knowing that Antonio wrote to Julia and Connie wrote to Tom?

    Here’s the last weeks of Snowden/Greenwald fun:

    A: Oh my GOD the government knows who I call!

    B: And the harm caused?

    A: Oh my GOD the government knows I mailed a letter!

    B: And the harm caused?

    Around and around we go, and no one has yet explained to me what harm comes from this. Still waiting. Nothing. Weeks have gone by and still not a single useful answer.

    It’s weirdly like the gay marriage debate where opponents would run around with their hair on fire but could never quite explain why they were upset. Don’t we have to have some kind of harm before we get freaked out? Or is it just enough to say the word “Government?” Is mere surprise all that’s required for hysteria?

    People, some of you are not looking at reality. You are looking at the imagery from a novel written in 1948 that predicted a dystopian future that never happened. Minus Mr. Orwell, you have no rational reason to be worked up.

    If I’m wrong, here’s your chance to prove it. Show me the harm.




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  11. stonetools says:

    @edmondo:

    (Shrug)

    So what? What’s the harm to me, or to anyone?

    Much like the NSA metadata, there don’t seem to be any Constitutional issues here. Once you place a piece of mail in a mailbox, you can’t seriously claim to have a legitimate expectation of privacy as to what’s written on the outside of the envelope.

    Says it all right there, doesn’t it? No legitimate expectation of privacy, no harm. I’m not going to take to the fainting coach over harmless activity. Be my guest, though. You First World types need something to worry about.

    Hey O-pologist!

    No need to defend him here, since-pay attention now-he hasn’t done anything wrong. Even Doug would agree with this.




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  12. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    f I’m wrong, here’s your chance to prove it. Show me the harm.

    Ever heard the expression “First World Problem “, Michael?

    This is the definition of that.

    Government reads whats on an envelope sent to me.
    Government knows my cell phone bill

    What’s next:
    Government knows what’s on my iPhone playlist?

    Meanwhile, over in Egypt, there’s a military coup, FFS.
    In states like Ohio and Texas, they are taking away women’s reproductive rights.
    In North Carolina, they are passing laws trying to suppress the voting rights of the “wrong” people.
    And we should worry about what’s written on envelopes?




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  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Nobody minded when Google did this. Now they are upset? Grow up. If it bothers you when the US gov’t does it, it oughta bother you just as much when it is Facebook.

    But ooooohhhhh…. I have friends…..




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  14. Spartacus says:

    @michael reynolds:

    People, some of you are not looking at reality. You are looking at the imagery from a novel written in 1948 that predicted a dystopian future that never happened. Minus Mr. Orwell, you have no rational reason to be worked up.

    Here’s a comment I made to you on a different thread from earlier today addressing this very point:

    I read one of your earlier comments on a different thread wherein you stated that fears of govt overreach are born out of Orwell’s 1984. I didn’t have the opportunity to comment then, but I think it would be hard for you to be more wrong about this. It’s not the fictional tale of 1984 that worries people. It’s the abuses disclosed in the factual reports of the Church Committee. [I’m not claiming the Church reports were popular reading (neither is 1984) – only that the abuses disclosed in them became part of pop culture.] Those govt abuses led to the creation of many of the checks and balances (e.g. FISA) that have been greatly weakened during the War on Terror. We have a record that shows what govt does when the protective measures we’ve put in place are not there.

    Have we weakened those protective measure so much that a repeat of the abuses disclosed by the Church reports is imminent? I sincerely doubt it, but I don’t really know and neither does anyone else because the Congressional Cmte charged with oversight doesn’t have all the facts and even once they get those facts they don’t have any authority to stop any abuses because of their confidentiality obligations.

    The reason many people (including myself) disdain “slippery slope” arguments is that the feared long-term effect is so speculative and so distant that the chain of events that is necessary to bring it about is so unlikely that is not worth worrying about. However, we know from recent U.S. history that the kinds of abuses that occur from unfettered secrecy and govt spying are not so speculative or distant.




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  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And what the Fwck is up with you people? You freely and willingly give up your vital statistics to any and all corporations, but as soon as the gov’t takes advantage of that which you freely give up to the corporate overlords…

    NOW you get upset??????????? In what world have you been living in???? It is exactly that intersection of gov’t and business that we, the private individuals, should worry about. But noooooooooooo…. You have Facebook.

    Hey, here is a hint, you don’t want the gov’t tracking what you say to whom and when you say it and what it is about?

    Shut the fuck up.




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  16. @OzarkHillbilly:

    Nobody minded when Google did this.

    Hell, nobody minded when Woodrow Wilson was doing it.

    From the article:

    The mail covers program, used to monitor Mr. Pickering, is more than a century old but is still considered a powerful tool.

    Oh, wait. We’re supposed to freak out over the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, which was created after the Anthrax attacks in 2001 and credited with helping break the ricin attacks earlier this year.

    I mean, I get why civil libertarians get all worked up over this. They should, however, consult an old story we all know about a boy who cried wolf. Seriously, guys…..get concerned over every little thing and then marvel at the complacency of all the sheeple, as if one does not naturally follow the other.




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  17. Spartacus says:

    @stonetools:

    Ever heard the expression “First World Problem “, Michael?

    I’m not nearly as bothered by the collection of mail data as I am metadata on phone calls, but you do realize that the rational that opposes “First World Problem” applies to most of the infringements we experience here.

    I don’t think my views on the 1st amendment or any of our constitutional rights could be considered absolutist. There are many types of speech the vast majority of people do not engage in that I would have no problem if it lost its protection. Would we then say that a governmental prohibition on those types of speech causes no harm because hardly anyone was saying those things anyway, and those that were saying will get along fine without saying them any longer. We don’t prohibit speech merely because the content may be rare and life would go on just as well without it. Instead, we recognize that a prohibition on speech, in and of itself, is harmful and then we determine whether there is sufficient justification to outweigh that harm.

    Similarly, we have various privacy rights and a denial of those rights is, in and of itself, harmful and shouldn’t be permitted without sufficient justification. Determining whether sufficient justification exists requires weighing the pros and cons of the infringement, which would require some assessment of how effective the infringements are at stopping whatever it is they’re supposed to stop. That assessment is taking place. Effective oversight isn’t taking place. And, there hasn’t been a judicial determination that the entire breadth of the NSA’s surveillance of Americans is constitutional. You, Michael Reynolds and others seem to be arguing we should skip the assessment and also not question the oversight due to the relatively low value you place on the right of privacy.




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  18. michael reynolds says:

    @Spartacus:

    The Church Committee if I recall correctly was almost exclusively focused on matters like assassination of foreign heads of state, regime change and so on. I was paying attention when it was happening (’cause I’m old) and what I recall of it was CIA efforts to get Castro’s beard to fall out, and assassination programs in Vietnam, and backing of anti-communist but heinous regimes, so on.

    But we are now quite openly assassinating foreign targets, hopefully Al Qaeda or associated. The quality of our intel is the difference between hitting an actual AQ operator and hitting some unlucky dude standing around with his goats. So, given that we are now in a real struggle against various terrorists, I assume we want our intel to be good. And I’d say we all dislike the idea of hitting innocent people, so the harm, if any, would come from less effective intel.

    And of course none of us want terror attacks in this country or in any of our allies. There, too, it’s the quality of the intel that makes the difference. So we should theoretically want the best intel to save lives and incidentally to avoid the kind of panic that breeds more extreme government reactions.

    Logic is on the side of PRISM and this rather old-school post office thing as well. At least the logic supports those programs unless we can show that they are materially harmful.

    And that’s the missing link. Because if 1) These programs reduce the odds of us or allies suffering attacks, and 2) If they also make it less likely that we’ll hit the wrong people, innocent people, and 3) If we cannot point to some harm that outweighs those plusses, then logic demands support for the programs.

    As of right now I’m not seeing the Point 3. I’m seeing the plusses, not seeing the minuses. Unless we go to the legal argument – that the programs are unconstitutional – which is yet to be conclusively argued. Or unless we go to the slippery slope argument. Which brings us back to Mr. Orwell.

    Logic suggests support for PRISM if it is constitutional and if no harm is being done to US citizens.




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  19. JKB says:

    Wait, is this why the mail is so slow these days?

    And, really, should we be surprised ever since the phrase “cover me, I’m going in to buy some stamps” became routine outside post offices.

    It’s not really the data collection that is the problem. It is the fact that the US government cannot or will not institute effective management controls to keep the data from being mis-used by “rogue” government employees or political operatives of the current administration.

    It demonstrates not only the incompetence of big government but also its malfeasance.

    Since the data collection cannot be stopped, the solution is to tear down this bureaucracy and welfare state and return to a smaller government focused on core Constitutional duties.




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  20. edmondo says:

    Just to save the USPS some time, I dropped my mail in ballot off today. One less vote for Cory Booker, one giant step backward for Wall Street.




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  21. Ben Wolf says:

    If you people don’t mind NSA employees beating off to your phone sex or the post office keeping a tally sheet of who you’ve fucked, then just sign a waiver giving them the right to total surveillance of your lives. Some of us don’t like it, so don’t expect us to be part of your exhibitionist fetish, or give us crap when we object to this bullshit. For the record I don’t willingly share a thing with Google because I don’t use it for anything other than intercepting spam nor do I allow Verizon to track me, so yeah, I have a big problem with an unaccountable government agency telling me I have no right to a private life.

    The harm done by such behavior is tremendous. State surveillance stifles free thought and expression and cultivates a siege mentality and paranoia among a populace That’s not opinion, it’s a fact. Society in the Easter Bloc nations and the Soviet Union disintegrated under the weight of it.




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  22. Spartacus says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The Church Committee reported on foreign assassinations/coup efforts, etc. and also domestic surveillance including spying on war protestors, MLK and other righteous folk. The Senate investigated those things and enacted several pieces of legislation to curb them. One of those laws was the FISA, which has been weakened substantially by the Patriot Act as well as post 9/11 amendments to FISA itself.

    http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/courts_special_fisc.html

    Congress in 1978 established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as a special court and authorized the Chief Justice of the United States to designate seven federal district court judges to review applications for warrants related to national security investigations. Judges serve for staggered, non-renewable terms of no more than seven years, and until 2001 were drawn from different judicial circuits. The provisions for the court were part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (92 Stat. 1783), which required the government, before it commenced certain kinds of intelligence gathering operations within the United States, to obtain a judicial warrant similar to that required in criminal investigations. The legislation was a response to a report of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the “Church Committee”), which detailed allegations of executive branch abuses of its authority to conduct domestic electronic surveillance in the interest of national security. Congress also was responding to the Supreme Court’s suggestion in a 1972 case that under the Fourth Amendment some kind of judicial warrant might be required to conduct national security related investigations.

    Read also the bottom of page 2 continuing on to page 3 of the next link but here’s an excerpt:

    The government often secretly spied upon citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts. Groups and individuals were harassed and disrupted because of their political views andlifestyles.

    Unsavory and vicious tactics were employed by the FBI, including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupting meetings, ostracizing people from their professions, and provoking target groups into rivalries that could have resulted in deaths.

    Leaving aside the harm suffered by the direct victims of this, it would be nearly impossible for this kind of govt activity not to suppress the political speech of many Americans who may be opposed to govt policy but now too fearful to speak against it.

    It’s also not relevant that this kind of harassment was suffered by a small minority of the citizenry. Each person has the right to be free of this even if most other people are ok with it. And of course it’s not necessary to inflict the majority to this in order to achieve the desired effect. I go back to all the people on the no-fly list, some of whom can’t get back home.

    http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/06/no-fly-list-orwellian-or-kafkaesque




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  23. Spartacus says:

    @michael reynolds:

    As is becoming my custom, I totally screwed up the blockquotes again. Hopefully you can still follow my comment.

    Here’s the link I forgot to include regarding pages 2 and 3.

    http://www.aclu.org/images/asset_upload_file893_29902.pdf




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  24. Tyrell says:

    Here is my brain drain two cents worth about this: maybe, just maybe if the USPS workers spent their time delivering mail instead of “logging” it, then perhaps they would be making money instead of going in the hole.
    Have a great, safe 4th. of July.
    “the flag still stands for freedom and they can’t take that away….God bless the USA!” (Lee Greenwood)
    “this flag is not no rag and these colors don’t run” (Charlie Daniels)
    God bless America, happy 4th. !!




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  25. michael reynolds says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    The harm done is “tremendous” and the example you have is NSA people beating off to your phone sex.

    Yeah. I don’t think you’re exactly helping your cause. Let Spartacus take this.




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  26. michael reynolds says:

    @Spartacus:

    Thank you, now those are worthwhile examples. (Blockquotes notwithstanding.)

    If what you are saying is that you oppose using this data to persecute or otherwise harm US citizens then you and I are in 100% agreement.

    But what the NSA has is nothing compared to what Google has on you, me and Ben Wolf. There are dozens of companies that know far more about us than the government does. And they could all engage in blackmail. Any number of Google employees could, theoretically, call you up and say, “Babysitter porn? Really? How do you think your employer would feel about that? Or your wife?”

    So, beating off to your phone sex, to use Ben’s revealing example, is something any number of people could be doing. Don’t really need the NSA to do that. Hell, even AT&T could probably manage it.

    So what exactly are we defending? Our privacy? No. Our privacy is long gone. What we’re talking about is specifically excluding the NSA (et al) from learning some portion of what is already out there at Verizon, Yahoo, Amazon, etc… We’re talking about excluding the US government from knowing what any number of foreign governments know. We’re talking about excluding the NSA from knowing what anyone with enough cash can discover about you.

    Why worry about the government specifically? Because the government has guns. (Guns as stand-in for a bunch of powers.) That’s the bottom line. MasterCard and Target do not have guns, the government does. The problem is not that the government has data, the problem is that the government could in theory use that data to harm you in some real world way.

    Shall we take away the government’s guns? Can’t really do that. Shall we take away their capacity to stop people setting off bombs in shopping malls? I’d rather we didn’t, I’m not fond of bombs. So we need to erect reasonable barriers. Not against the acquiring of data, but against its use. If we deny the NSA the capacity to acquire the data then we are handicapping them in a race with genuinely dangerous people who are genuinely trying to kill us.

    So, if you want to call for laws that very strictly control how any data can be used against an American citizen, I’m totally with you. But that’s different than saying we can’t listen in on Mullah Omar’s calls just because the guy at the other end of the line is a US citizen.

    I draw the line at actual effect, rather than at slippery slope possibilities. We still need the 4th amendment, and still have it as it relates to criminal prosecution. We may need additional legislation. Great, let’s do that. And let’s also let the NSA go find terrorists.




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  27. @JKB:

    It demonstrates not only the incompetence of big government but also its malfeasance.

    I dunno, JKB. They found that ricin lady pretty quickly.

    Hate to say it but if you’re alleging incompetence, well…..they found the lady who sent the ricin. That’s not incompetent. That was pretty clever actually. She was probably shocked when they showed up at her door with a search warrant.

    If you’d want to allege malfeasance, well…..they found the lady who sent the ricin. I don’t think you should be pointing the government out as the malfeasers. They were just sitting there, minding their own business and this crazy lady is sending the president poison. Malfeasance???

    Sure. Just not in the way you’re thinking.




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  28. anjin-san says:

    It demonstrates not only the incompetence of big government

    Say hi to Bin Laden if you see him.




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  29. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, despite the reporting I am pretty sure this does not represent new technology at the Post Office, rather a simple redeployment of technology that existed since the 90’s. Since that time virtually every letter gets dumped into a conveyor belt where the address is “read” by OCR. So there’s a picture of the front of the address along with the systems best attempt to read it and it’s used for routing purposes, not spying.

    Interesting factoid: Ever get a letter with an odd fluorescent barcode printed on the front? That came from a failure to automatically recognize the address. It gets the bar code to more easily locate it later and gets trundled into a continuously looping conveyor while a the picture of the envelope is sent to a a satellite and redistributed to one of hundreds of readers located all over the country. They do their best to make out the address, enter it, and then the next time the envelope makes it through the reader it gets a label with the new address slapped on top. Very cool, and not at all deployed for spying although obviously it is very easy to repurpose.




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  30. Paul Hooson says:

    I long believed that this country is something of a police state, that gives off the illusion of being more free than it actually is. And there’s a consensus by both political parties to keep this in place because of fear of crime or disorder. – One of my neighbors who was a former school bully who once stabbed my brother in his leg calls in phony zoning violations for one thing after another to the city government where I live and I have to spend hours and hours of time refuting his false claims because they have the potential cost me thousands of dollars in fines for nonsense claims of his despite any lack of proof. City governments don’t operate through a normal rule of law like the criminal justice system, they come up with vague things and try to make zoning violations out of this, and get liens against homes of individuals without a normal court process or rule of law. This is how government makes money these days. You have a bad neighbor, they make false complaints about things that aren’t happening, and the city gets on your back and they are nearly impossible to get off because they can make thousands of dollars off of home owners for enforcing nonsense vague rules they make up themselves. And this system is upheld by a bipartisan consensus by government, so voting won’t change things. – America is much closer to the old Soviet Union than it would like itself to be thought to be. Government has enough levels of rules and regulations to probably arrest every citizen for something if it really wants to, or considers them a threat to the status quo. Republicans aren’t even one ounce better than the Democrats here. Both parties are the devil here.




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  31. Hal 10000 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    You freely and willingly give up your vital statistics to any and all corporations, but as soon as the gov’t takes advantage of that which you freely give up to the corporate overlords…

    Not to unload on you specifically, Ozark, but this argument is one of the worst in the “this isn’t a big deal” quiver. Google can’t jail anybody. Google doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers authorized to use deadly force. Google never rounded up an ethnic minority and put them in an internment camp. Google never tossed anyone in jail for dissent.

    We give government extraordinary power that, if a private citizen or entity used it, would be illegal. We have to, so that we have law and order. But in return for that, we hold government to a certain standard of behavior and require it to obey certain rules.

    The history of these powers is that they are always extended and always end up being abused. Worrying about government surveillance is not some Left-Wing fever dream; it is based on the reality that government *has* abused its power in order to harass, annoy, arrest and sometimes kill people it doesn’t like or people expressing views it doesn’t want to hear (e.g. COINTELPRO).

    I would much rather be too paranoid about government’s surveillance power than not paranoid enough.




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  32. Woody says:

    Damn, the Feds have a lot of Pottery Barn catalog pix.




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  33. edmondo says:

    @Woody:

    And they spent billions of dollars to collect them. Why can’t austerity start here?




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  34. wr says:

    @JKB: “Since the data collection cannot be stopped, the solution is to tear down this bureaucracy and welfare state and return to a smaller government focused on core Constitutional duties. ”

    Yes, because the government is checking mail and phone records, we must eliminate social security and medicare.

    Is there anything that could happen anywhere in the universe that would not serve as evidence we should eliminate social security and medicare for you?




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  35. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    @michael reynolds: “Show me the harm.”

    No.

    Instead, you show me a warrant or STFU and pull your big nosy beak out of my life.

    What you are offering is NOT freedom.

    Expect resistance.




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  36. gtleviathan says:

    @Woody:

    Actually, the reporting is a little off. Advertising mail is generally NOT photographed. The primary purpose of the photograph is actually to read the address, the surveillance function is secondary. Advertising mail is usually already barcoded by the mailer, so it doesn’t have to go through the photographing process.




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  37. michael reynolds says:

    @James in Silverdale, WA:

    A warrant to record the addresses on mail passing through the post office? Sorry, dude: you have no expectation of privacy on something you set out in your mailbox. No warrant is necessary. It’s like demanding a warrant every time a cop watches you drive past in your car.

    It’s silly. Like your tough guy “expect resistance” line. Resist all you like. Throw away your phone and your computer and your credit cards. Not willing to do that? Then you will generate data and that data will be collected by Big Business and Big Government.




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  38. James Pearce says:

    @Hal 10000:

    I would much rather be too paranoid about government’s surveillance power than not paranoid enough.

    What, then, is paranoid enough?

    I mean, it seems to me that paranoia is the main reason for such government surveillance. They’re paranoid that some terrorist is going to set a bomb, so they track the mail and mine your data.

    Maybe sowing the seeds of even more paranoia just isn’t a very good idea.




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  39. stonetools says:

    I think the problem here for Spartacus and others is that they disagree with the law. The SCOTUS has said that there is no generalized, free floating right of privacy: rather, there is a right be free from unreasonable searches and seizures in areas where you have reasonable expectation of privacy. The Court has further held that you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in records collected by a third party about you. Spartacus thinks that’s wrong, but the Court shows no sign of changing its mind about that-which means that the actions of the NSA re phone metadata and of the USPS re envelopes is and will remain legal.
    Spartacus can’t really answer Micheal’s question about harm. About all he can speak of is a general disquiet about the government collecting this info. I don’t really know how to help about that, except to agree with Michael that this isn’t harm.
    Again, I think we should focus on the actual abuses happening now-the attacks on voting rights in North Carolina or reproductive rights in Ohio. It seems to me that we should deal with those first, and focus on potential for abuse later.




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  40. Caj says:

    Get ready. Darrell Issa will have another investigation soon. Bring in all the postal workers alongside their vehicles to have them inspected for tracking devices! He’s already paranoid. Everything in his mind is a scandal so this will be just one more!




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  41. Jr says:

    I long believed that this country is something of a police state, that gives off the illusion of being more free than it actually is

    It is nonsense like this that make it hard to take civil libertarians seriously.




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  42. Scott F. says:

    @michael reynolds: I just wanted to thank you for this cogent and well expressed comment. I just may have to pirate some of it for similar arguments other places.




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  43. @MarkedMan:

    When the technology to replace carrier physical delivery sequence sorting activity with digital automated image sorting was originally deployed, the images were fleeting, saved typically for hours, a day or two at most. Now official policy is they can be retained for up to eight years.

    But not to worry. Everyone can feel safe and secure. I worked for the Postal Service for 33 years and can attest that almost no one in the organization abuses their access to private information and misuses data — except on days that end in ‘y.”




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  44. michael reynolds says:

    Well, this is fun. France, which has made a fair bit of noise about PRISM, is doing exactly the same thing:

    France’s foreign intelligence service intercepts computer and telephone data on a vast scale, like the controversial US Prism programme, according to the French daily Le Monde.

    The data is stored on a supercomputer at the headquarters of the DGSE intelligence service, the paper says.

    The operation is “outside the law, and beyond any proper supervision”, Le Monde says.

    Other French intelligence agencies allegedly access the data secretly.

    It is not clear however whether the DGSE surveillance goes as far as Prism. So far French officials have not commented on Le Monde’s allegations.

    The DGSE allegedly analyses the “metadata” – not the contents of e-mails and other communications, but the data revealing who is speaking to whom, when and where.

    Connections inside France and between France and other countries are all monitored, Le Monde reports.

    The paper alleges the data is being stored on three basement floors of the DGSE building in Paris. The secret service is the French equivalent of Britain’s MI6.

    The operation is designed, say experts, to uncover terrorist cells. But the scale of it means that “anyone can be spied on, any time”, Le Monde says.

    What we will eventually learn is that every intelligence agency on earth with the technical capability to do it, is doing it.

    Apropos of which, France has apparently rejected Snowden’s asylum request. Snowden who first ran to the freedom-loving Chinese, then to the freedom-loving Russians, then tried to find a home in freedom-loving Ecuador, and is now presumably looking to North Korea, Cuba and Saudi Arabia for his libertarian paradise.




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  45. michael reynolds says:

    And here’s a DGSE (French intelligence) heavy admitting the obvious regarding Snowald’s most recent “bombshell” that we spy on our allies:

    Cet espionnage existe depuis toujours. Tous les services de renseignement occidentaux s’espionnent. Il n’y a pas d’amis, il n’y a que des alliés. La France fait de même avec l’Allemagne ou avec la Grande-Bretagne.

    Translated that’s “Yeah, we all spy on each other. Always have. Chill.”




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  46. @Caj: Actually, postal employees disable the tracking devices on their vehicles — lest they impede midday naps and two hour lunches.




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  47. Spartacus says:

    @michael reynolds:

    So, if you want to call for laws that very strictly control how any data can be used against an American citizen, I’m totally with you. But that’s different than saying we can’t listen in on Mullah Omar’s calls just because the guy at the other end of the line is a US citizen.

    I think it’s important to distinguish between two groups of data collection: data that is collected in response to a suspicion of terrorist activity and data that is collected from everyone in order to try to detect patterns of suspicious activity. I have no problem with the first group. The second group, however, is terribly problematic. The govt has made unsubstantiated claims that the vast data collection in the 2nd group increases security, but they can’t/won’t tell us how and their overseers have no means or authority to validate the claim.

    So do we permit the govt to use anti-U.S. policy comments it heard an American father of Middle Eastern descent make in a phone conversation with his son who is a journalist in Iraq in order to investigate whether the father has terrorist connections? Can that investigation include asking the father’s neighbors and employer questions about the father? Are the neighbors and employer free to inform the father they’ve been questioned? If the govt can’t find any evidence of terrorist activity, but still thinks the father may not be totally clean in light of his strong opposition to U.S. policy in the ME, can the govt prosecute the father on account of evidence of a completely unrelated crime they discover through a warrant the govt received based on information provided by a neighbor or employer during the course of the investigation? [We already know that the govt’s policy of “preemptive prosecution” requires the father be prosecuted.]

    Unless the answers to all of these questions is “no,” the govt will have investigated, prosecuted and possibly sentenced an American citizen due to that citizen’s opinion about foreign policy. But even if the govt doesn’t find any evidence of other criminal activity, that father will have been harassed, his career at Boeing or some other defense contractor will be dead, and he and his neighbors will be very reluctant to speak out against U.S. policy ever again. Is this a “slippery slope” argument? Yes, but it’s on a slope that recent U.S. history demonstrates is real and inevitable. I don’t know how this doesn’t lead to the kinds of abuses disclosed in the Church reports.

    We also know there’s very little reason for assuming collecting all of this data produces any good. The govt doesn’t have the resources to analyze all of this data. Those were the reasons cited for the govt’s failure to stop the underwear bomber and the Times Square bomber even though both of them were tagged in govt surveillance systems.

    For these reasons, the govt shouldn’t collect, much less use, metadata, phone call conversations, emails and texts that every single American makes unless the govt has a pre-existing reason to suspect terrorist activity. To assume harm does not inevitably come from this kind of data collection requires one to ignore the findings of the only authorities who’ve ever thoroughly investigated these issues.




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  48. @Spartacus:

    To assume harm does not inevitably come from this kind of data collection requires one to ignore the findings of the only authorities who’ve ever thoroughly investigated these issues.

    On the same token, assuming this is harmful while relying on hypothetical horror stories doesn’t really do your case much good.

    I mean, if we’re going to focus on how this stuff may be abused, wouldn’t it also be wise to focus on how this stuff may also be helpful? Why lean in one direction and not the other?




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