Each year, at the request of police and intelligence agents across the country, the United States Postal Service conducts surveillance on physical pieces of mail going to and from the homes and businesses of tens of thousands of Americans, a group of United States senators says.
To initiate this surveillance, the department or agency has at least one hurdle to climb. First, they must submit the request in writing. Then… Well, nothing. That is the entire hurdle.
In practice, this serves less of an evidentiary threshold and more like an IT ticketing system. For more than a handful of senators, that’s unacceptable. And in a letter Wednesday to the nation’s chief postal inspector, Gary Barksdale, the group explains why: “There is a long history of documented abuses of postal surveillance.”
The letter, first obtained by WIRED, is signed by an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, including senators Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, Edward Markey, Cynthia Lummis, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Lee, Cory Booker, and Steve Daines. It opens with a warning about a request devised by the postal service known as a “mail cover,” which the lawmakers say “threatens both our privacy and First Amendment rights.” The lawmakers equate mail covers directly with the “unchecked government monitoring” of Americans’ mail. Here’s how the Postal Service describes them:
“A mail cover is an investigative tool used to record data appearing on the outside of a mailpiece. Law enforcement agencies use this information to protect national security; locate fugitives; obtain evidence; or help identify property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under criminal law. A mail cover is justified when it will further an investigation or provide evidence of a crime.”
The phrase “further an investigation” likely means little to the person whose mail is being surveilled. It doesn’t indicate that they’re the target of an investigation or even suspected of doing anything illegal. It doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone in a position to charge someone with a crime knows for certain that a crime has occurred. As the Postal Service itself says, law enforcement agencies can also freely use the data recorded from the outside of a piece of mail—commonly known as metadata in the context of digital communications—merely to “identify property” it intends to seize.
In contrast, the senators note, the government can usually only monitor metadata associated with electronic messages (e.g., email or text messages) “with a court order.”
Admittedly, there are likely differences between people’s expectations of privacy when it comes to email and written letters: People don’t ordinarily expect what they print on the outside of their letters and packages to have the same level of privacy as what’s inside. It’s understood that whatever is printed on a piece of mail will, at some point, be viewed by a stranger before it reaches its destination. But those people are also generally understood to be mail carriers, not intelligence agents.
The notion that only a mail carrier will view a piece of mail is based on a quainter understanding of the mail handling process; a Normal Rockwell view of what a modern postal delivery system entails. In the US, the exterior of every piece of mail is photographed. And the information obtained from these photos, such as religious and political affiliations, is more intimate than people may realize. This data has been described by one former FBI agent as “easily abused” and a “treasure trove.” In comparing mail covers to the National Security Agency surveillance exposed during the Edward Snowden scandal, the renowned security technologist Bruce Schneier once called them “basically … the same thing.”