Editorial: Surveillance Goes Postal

It is generally agreed that communication by traditional letter and envelope — snail mail, if you will — is increasingly irrelevant in the Internet age. We don’t happen to share that view, and apparently we’re not alone. The law enforcement community also gives its stamp of approval to the U.S. Postal Service — as a rich resource for scrutinizing the lives of Americans.

So rich, in fact, that there are two surveillance programs involving the Postal Service, one old and one recently disclosed, both of which pose substantial threats to personal privacy and constitutional safeguards.

The former is called “mail covers,” under which postal workers, at the request of law enforcement authorities, record the information on the exterior of tens of thousands of letters and parcels each year before they are delivered and turn the results over to the agency that requested it, The New York Times reported earlier this month.

Unlike a wiretap, mail cover requests require no judicial review; the Postal Service makes the call and almost always grants them. There are two types: one for criminal activity and the other for national security. This monitoring program has been in effect for more than a century, according to The Times. On average, about 15,000 to 20,000 mail cover requests are made each year for criminal activity and an undisclosed number for counter-terrorism efforts.

How useful can such prosaic information possibly be? James J. Wedick, a former FBI agent who spent 34 years at the bureau, calls it a treasure trove: “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.” Wedick added, however, “It can be easily abused because it’s so easy to use and you don’t have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form.”

If you’re looking for a bright side, at least the targets of mail covers have to be suspected of something by somebody. Not so with the other program, which was instituted following the anthrax attacks in 2001, in which five people were killed. It is called the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers take pictures of the exterior of every piece of paper mail processed in the United States. Despite the decreasing popularity of snail mail, that amounted to 160 billion pieces last year. How long those images are stored is anybody’s guess; ours is, “for a long time.”

In effect, the mail cover program has been extended to monitor the communications of millions of Americans who are suspected of nothing, except maybe of being mired in old technology, which is not yet a crime so far as we know.

Names, addresses, return addresses and postmarks can provide a lot of information about one’s activities and contacts, even if the government still needs a warrant to actually open and read the contents of mail. In fact, they pretty much mirror the “metadata” from phone calls and email that recent disclosures have shown the National Security Agency to be so diligently collecting.

The collection and storage of large amounts of information simply because it can be easily done and might be useful in some contingent future is an invitation to abuse. In particular, when certain groups come under scrutiny for their activities, it is all too tempting to use information that describes individuals’ patterns of behavior and circles of contact in ways that were not intended when it was collected.

The Founding Fathers were well aware of the dangers that arise when people are subject to monitoring by government without specific, well-founded reason to believe they have done something wrong. That’s why the Fourth Amendment is a vital part of the Constitution.