US Postal Service Surveillance Program Under Fire for Unjustified Snooping

Following leaks exposing the fact that the National Security Agency has been spying on Americans’ digital communications in an indiscriminate and warrantless fashion, SFGate is reporting that the United States Postal Service has also been compiling Americans’ mail records into a nationwide dragnet and giving those records to law enforcement agencies at all levels of government for reasons that are being called “unjustified.” Under the US Postal Service’s mail covers program, the cover of every piece of mail is photographed, and the subsequent image stored in a database just in case law enforcement might need it at a later date.

The data collected allows law enforcement and other government officials to monitor to whom and where an individual is sending mail. However, postal officials are not allowed to open mail and investigate its contents without a warrant. The Washington Post noted that, at a November 19 hearing before the House of Representatives, USPS Deputy Inspector General Tammy Whitcomb indicated that the agency she oversees approved 99.8 percent of last year’s 6000 outside requests by government officials for citizens’ mail records. An internal audit presented at the hearing noted that, in 13 percent of cases, the records requests were approved for inappropriate reasons. 20 percent of the requests were honored without approval from higher-ups, and officials ignored guidelines requiring them to purge records after an expiration date and conduct yearly reviews of the program. According to SFGate, the US Postal Service approved around 50,000 total requests for citizens’ mail records, including probes by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and internal queries by USPS officials.

In one case, the USPS allegedly approved a politically-motivated request by Maricopa County, AZ Sheriff Joe Arpaio for activist Mary Rose Wilcox’ mail records. Political opponents Wilcox and Arpaio are at odds with each other over their opposing views on immigration.

Timothy Edgar with the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University told The Washington Post that these revelations “shake our confidence in longstanding principles of privacy and civil liberties.”

The US Postal Service originally asked that Whitcomb not publicize her findings and argued that doing so would expose “investigative techniques and related information which could compromise ongoing criminal investigations.” When she did, the government-run mail carrier admitted that the criticisms in her report had merit and that it would work to resolve the issues, first by beginning to look more closely at records requests. Said a letter issued by the USPS on the subject, “All standard operating procedures will be reviewed, revised and adopted as practice.”