At the request of law enforcement agencies, postal workers take pictures of the letters and packages before they are delivered, the New York Times reported.
The information is then stored for an indefinite period of time in the event a law enforcement official requests it. Each year, tens of thousands of pieces of mail are subjected to further scrutiny.
Reading the contents of a letter requires a court-ordered warrant, but in the case of ‘mail cover’ requests, law enforcement agencies submit a letter to the Postal Service, which “rarely denies a request.”
Although the ‘mail covers’ program has been around for nearly a century, its updated successor, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) program, was created in the aftermath of the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers.
MICT requests are separated into two categories: those related to possible criminal activity and those that are meant to protect national security. Requests based on suspected criminal activity average 15,000 to 20,000 per year, unnamed law enforcement officials told the Times.
The number of requests for mail covers related to the fight against terrorism has not been made public.
Although law enforcement officials must have warrants to open private correspondence, former President George W. Bush signed off on a document in 2007 that gave the federal government the authority to open mail without warrants in “emergencies or in foreign intelligence cases.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigations revealed the existence of MICT last month in the course of an investigation over ricin-laced letters mailed to President Barack Obama and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
News of the US Postal Service’s surveillance program comes as Washington is facing heated criticism over a formerly covert surveillance program that gave the National Security Agency (NSA), in cooperation with nine of the world’s largest internet companies, sweeping powers to collect data on telephone calls and internet habits of billions of people both at home and abroad.
The information was made public after former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, blew the whistle on the activities.
Officials in the Obama administration, meanwhile, are attempting to justify the NSA’s surveillance programs, saying the electronic monitoring amounts to the same thing as examining the outside of a letter. At the very least, the program shows that traditional mail is held up to the same kind of scrutiny that the NSA has given to phone calls, e-mail and internet services.
“It’s a treasure trove of information,” James J. Wedick, a former FBI agent told The New York Times.“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 added: “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.”
Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert and an author, called the program an invasion of privacy.
“Basically they are doing the same thing as the other programs, collecting the information on the outside of your mail, the metadata, if you will, of names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations, which gives the government a pretty good map of your contacts, even if they aren’t reading the contents,”he told the US newspaper.
The surveillance requests on mail covers are granted for about 30 days, and can be extended for up to 120 days.