Restore the Fourth: Snail mail edition
On the Fourth of July, thousands of protesters took to the streets across America to challenge the National Security Agency’s unconstitutional domestic spying program.
Simultaneously, the New York Times‘ revealed the U.S. Post Office has been doing something disturbingly similar for years now, possibly for as long as a century.
Currently known by the Orwellian moniker “Mail Isolation Control and Tracking” and previously dubbed simply “mail covers,” the program takes photos of mailed envelopes, scans that data and holds on to it until an investigator comes calling. And–you guessed it–no warrant is needed. It’s old school metadata.
Some may find this system less objectionable than PRISM, because while PRISM was peering into communications most people think are private, there is nothing private about the outside of an envelope. The simply act of carrying an envelope to a mailbox could expose it to at least some peering eyes, and in any case, postal workers will certainly see every envelope. The courts have taken just this stance, saying that we have “no reasonable expectation of privacy for information contained on the outside of a letter.”
But does that make it okay? Read what one federal investigator had to say about what kind of information they can obtain:
“It’s a treasure trove of information,” said James J. Wedick, a former F.B.I. agent who spent 34 years at the agency and who said he used mail covers in a number of investigations, including one that led to the prosecution of several elected officials in California on corruption charges. “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.”
But, he said: “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.”
Moreover, the program has been used for political intimidation. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona used the program to track the mail going to and from a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors who was highly critical of Arpaio’s programs.
If a law enforcement official wants to collect data on a private citizen, they should use the recourse that has always been available to them: go to the courts to request a warrant, and make the case that such investigation is necessary for public safety. The burden of proof rests with the law enforcement official, and if they can pass that high bar, then the investigation can commence. For this program, or any government program, to authorize the exercise of such power unchecked by any formal process or institution is a recipe for disaster.