Let me just say plainly, I was utterly baffled by the level of shock and surprise people had upon learning that the government records their phone calls. It’s like people just haven’t been paying attention for the last 10 years. But I gotta tell you, now that it’s being reported that the government is logging all the snail mail that goes through the Postal Service, I was a little surprised, not that they would have the power or ambition to do it, but that the Postal Service is competent enough to assist law enforcement in any practical way.
If you’ve never dealt with the Post Office in any professional capacity you may not know what I’m talking about. I’ll give you an example.
I ship a lot of small packages for ShinyBadges.com. Domestic shipping is no problem. I rarely have to set foot in a Post Office, and when I do I can use the automated postage kiosk so I don’t have to deal with a real person (That’s right postal workers. People would rather deal with a robot than a bureaucrat.) But for international shipping I am required to go the counter and deal with a bureaucrat. It’s probably some anti-terrorism measure.
So, I walk in with a small package with the recipient’s address written on it, and I’m told I have to fill out a customs form. The point of the form is to declare the value. I always say it’s a gift of no cash value. But for inexplicable reasons the form requires me to rewrite the address. Then I’ve got to stand there while the bureaucrat enters the address into the computer by hand. There’s absolutely no reason for this. For domestic packages they type in the zip code and your done. International packages have country codes. It could be done exactly the same way, but instead I’ve got to stand there and watch the bureaucrat waste time and money, sometimes for half an hour at least if I’ve got a lot of orders.
These people, who can’t streamline their system enough to avoid transcribing an address by hand three times, are going to log mail for law enforcement? That surprises me. Imagine the human error. And or course, human error is the only reason we know this is going on.
Apparently some postal worker accidentally delivered the confidential instructions for monitoring someone’s mail to the mail box of the person being monitored. Whoops! Leslie James Pickering found the instructions card in the other mail sent to his home. It read, “Show all mail to supv (supervisor) for copying prior to going out on the street.” It included Pickering’s name, address and the word “CONFIDENTIAL” in bright green.
Today Pickering and his wife are mild mannered small bookstore owners, but a decade ago he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, which the FBI labeled as eco-terrorists… so of course his magazine subscriptions are a matter of National Security.
The Mail Covers Program, used to monitor Pickering, allows law enforcement to request records of all the information from the outside of letters and packages before they’re delivered to a particular target. Tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this scrutiny. In addition, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in 2001. It’d been highly secret until now. Apparently the Postal Service also photographs every piece of paper mail, 160 billion pieces last year, and upon request of law enforcement retraces the source of each piece. Yet their tracking software on the consumer side still sucks.
Essentially they used to monitor the mail of people they suspected of a crime, but now they just record everyone’s mail so in case they ever suspect anyone in the future they have a database to refer back to. Thanks to the new Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program they are basically running Mail Covers on virtually everyone.
Now of course we going to have to have a national discussion about whether or not the government logging all our snail mail is a Fourth Amendment violation… and whatever conclusions we come to will be summarily ignored. Because… terrorism! Well not really. Mostly these programs have been used to bust prostitution, drug dealers and Medicare fraud.
Best of all, no warrant necessary. Law enforcement submits a letter to the Postal Service, and they can grant the request without any judicial review. Supposedly law enforcement needs a warrant to open the mail, although President Bush asserted in a 2007 signing statement that they didn’t need a warrant to open mail, “in emergencies.”
Are you surprised? I’m not. In fact, it has me wondering if postal workers transfixing a few numbers in an address is one of the reasons SWAT raids so often hit the wrong house.