The more we learn about government domestic surveillance, the more disturbing it gets. We know the government has its fingers in seemingly every computer and cellphone in the country. That's why some folks are going back to old-fashioned paper, envelope and stamp snail mail to avoid the potential of digital tracking.
Unfortunately, according to a new audit by the United States Postal Service's inspector general, you're not really safe offline either. It turns out that the USPS approved almost 50,000 requests from law enforcement and internal investigators to monitor American letters and packages.
It's no secret that the USPS can track mail around the country and report that data back to the FBI or state and local law enforcement. Laws requiring the Postal Service to record names, addresses and other info printed on the outside of mail are more than a hundred years old. This specific program is known as "mail covers." Nobody can open your mail without a warrant, but they can record your return address and name for use in criminal investigations with nothing more than a request from the authorities.
Thanks to a report from the New York Times, we now know that "in many cases the Postal Service approved requests to monitor an individual’s mail without adequately describing the reason or having proper written authorization."
Even though nobody can open your mail without a warrant, and this program has been in existence for a very long time, the secrecy surrounding these requests is what makes it very concerning. It's these kinds of under-the-table surveillance tactics that make it possible for potential abuse by elected officials and law enforcement. From the New York Times:
In Arizona in 2011, Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County Supervisor, discovered that her mail was being monitored by the county’s sheriff, Joe Arpaio. Ms. Wilcox had been a frequent critic of Mr. Arpaio, objecting to what she considered the targeting of Hispanics in his immigration sweeps.
The Postal Service had granted an earlier request from Mr. Arpaio and Andrew Thomas, who was then the county attorney, to track Ms. Wilcox’s personal and business mail.
Using information gleaned from letters and packages sent to Ms. Wilcox and her husband, Mr. Arpaio and Mr. Thomas obtained warrants for banking and other information about two restaurants the couple owned. The sheriff’s office also raided a company that hired Ms. Wilcox to provide concessions at the local airport.
This scandal attracted national attention and was at the center of a $1 million settlement awarded to Ms. Wilcox and upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The county attorney responsible was disbarred and the Sheriff's Office came under heavy scrutiny.
Unfortunately, standing up for your personal civil liberties in court seems like the only way to fight this government overreach. On the other hand, digital technology opens up possibilities to avoid government snooping. Click here to read my tip on how to avoid the NSA and protect your privacy. Or you can use this handy app to encrypt your smartphone calls.