With the ongoing debate about mass spying by the NSA, many Americans are reconsidering their reliance on telephone and electronic communications. But is it safe to trust the US Postal Service (USPS)? You may not want to know….

In 2013, the Postal Inspection Service processed tens of thousands of mail covers, and also “photograph[ed] the exterior of every piece of paper mail” processed by the USPS through the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program revealed last year.

Last July, the New York Times explained that “Snail mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.”

A Postal Service Inspector General report released last month suggests that even the more restrained mail cover program should raise concerns.

A mail cover is used to record data presented on the outside of a piece of mail. This service is used for investigative measures within the Postal Inspection Service, but is also available to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

According to the USPS Inspector General, law enforcement agencies requesting mail covers must first meet the requirements of the US Postal Inspection Service. They must demonstrate clear reasoning justifying their need to use these services, including details on the violation of law, or proof that a crime has been committed and how the mail cover would be of assistance in the investigation.

The Inspector General’s recent audit covered September 2013 through May 2014, and shows that post office officials failed to put in place compliance procedures over the course of 3 years, placing both privacy and security at risk.

The audit reveals that post office personnel were not abiding by Postal Service requirements when handling mail covers. Based on 196 randomly analyzed criminal mail cover requests, 21% were approved by someone not in an authoritative position; and 13% did not have accurate or required justification.

Another 27% of mail covers received from the Criminal Investigative Service Center (CISC) for processing were not entered into the Inspection Service Integrated Information System (ISIIS) within the allotted time period for compliance and regulation checks. This means that a whopping 61% of all criminal mail covers across the nation had some sort of legal deficiency.

Also, ISIIS has produced questionable and unreliable information due to insufficient system controls. Due to this deficiency in the ISIIS, 928 mail covers were found to remain active even though they should have ended many moons ago.

These findings led the Inspector General to articulate a disturbing concern:

“Insufficient controls over the mail covers program could hinder the Postal Inspection Service’s ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail, and harm the Postal Service’s brand.”

The public is most definitely concerned with dragnet invasions of privacy. Just a month after the Snowden disclosures forced a long overdue (and still ongoing) debate about government surveillance, the press also revealed the USPS Tracking Program, which stores metadata about snail mail for up to 6 years.

Leslie James Pickering, one of many investigative targets, accidentally received a handwritten card delivered to his home in September of 2012 with instructions to monitor and copy every letter and package sent there. Shocked by this apparent “confidential” note, Post Office personnel soon confirmed they were keeping track of all mail addressed to Mr. Pickering, but did not care to share anything else.

His participation in the Earth Liberation Front, an environmental group described by the FBI as “eco-terrorists,” might explain the basis for the government interest. Group affiliation, however, is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, so even that basis for scrutiny would not suffice to render USPS surveillance legal.

The USPS Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in 2001. Mark D. Rasch, who worked on numerous fraud cases using mail covers at the Department of Justice, said, “In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime…now it seems to be, ‘Let’s record everyone’s mailso in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.’ Essentially you’ve added mail covers on millions of Americans.”

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