Revealed: US mail subjected to widespread government surveillance program
The New York Time’s Ron Nixon reported on Monday this week that a 2014 audit of the USPS’s little-known surveillance program showed that nearly 50,000 pieces of mail were scrutinized during a 12-month span upon the request of authorities using a tactic called a “mail cover.”
But while the USPS green-lighted tens of thousands of these requests made by law enforcement agencies in the last year pursuant to criminal and national security investigations, the Times reported, the protocols in place for authorizing such scans are reportedly ripe with flaws.
“Insufficient controls,” as identified in the audit, “could hinder the Postal Inspection Service’s ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail and harm the Postal Service’s brand,” Nixon quoted from the report.
Additionally, the audit found that "responsible personnel did not always handle and process" those requests on par with the agency’s established rules.
The determinations made by the authors of the report run counter with what a spokesperson with the Postal Service told the Associated Press when reached for comment upon publication of the Times’ report. According to USPS spox Toni DeLancey, the agency "authorized only under limited circumstances” the monitoring of letters and packages.
According to the audit, however, 21 percent of the 196 instances examined when the USPS conducted “mail cover” surveillance, or when the agency recorded the identifying address on a package for law enforcement purposes, were done without written authorization; another 13 percent, the report noted, “were not adequately justified.”
These “inadequate controls,” as described in the audit’s summary, could impede legitimate investigations intended to target criminal activity, while at the same time subjecting even more Americans to government surveillance on the heels of revelations concerning other spy programs administered through offices such as the National Security Agency.
“It appears that there has been widespread disregard of the few protections that were supposed to be in place,” National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers President Theodore Simon told the Times.
Others, including those within the ranks of the USPS, raised concerns over the report as well.
“You can’t just get a mail cover to go on a fishing expedition,” Paul J. Krenn, a spokesman for the Postal Inspection Service — the policing branch of the USPS — added to the Times. “There has to be a legitimate law enforcement reason, and the mail cover can’t be the sole tool.”
The report is available on the website of the USPS Office of Inspector General and contains information about the “mail cover” program between October 1 2013 and September 30, 2014. Although the agency says around 49,000 requests for mail covers were made during the last fiscal year, auditors examined only a sample of 196 in determining the inadequacies within the program.