Snail mail is growing steadily less popular thanks to the internet, but people in the US still send lots of it every year — over 158 billion pieces of mail were handled by the US Postal Service in 2013 alone. As it turns out, the USPS has also been quietly spying on way more of the mail passing through its doors than previously acknowledged. A report from the agency's internal watchdog — the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) — found that USPS captured information from the outside of about 49,000 pieces of consumer mail in 2013 and turned much of it over to law enforcement organizations throughout the country, unbeknownst to the intended senders and recipients. This information reportedly did not include the contents of letters and packages, but rather was limited to the information appearing only on the exterior, such as names, addresses, and postmark dates.
The report on the USPS information capturing program, called "mail covers," was initially published to little fanfare over the summer and subsequently reported on by Politico, but is getting more attention now with an article appearing today in The New York Times that includes additional details.
"information from a mail cover often provides valuable investigative leads."
First some background: the mail covers program is hardly new, it's been in existence for over a hundred years, as The Times notes. It's also not as invasive as a full search warrant for the contents of mail, which the USPS also grants (although only for federal search warrants; state search warrants aren't accepted by the agency). In a guide for law enforcement agencies, the USPS explains exactly how the program works: a police officer/law enforcement agent needs to be already conducting an investigation into a suspected felony and have the names and addresses for their intended surveillance targets. The officer must send this information to the USPS through the mail or provide it verbally (in person or over the phone), along with a reason why the mail cover is needed. Then the USPS will begin capturing the information from the exterior of all the targets' incoming and outgoing mail for up to 30 days (although extensions are available). The USPS says that "information from a mail cover often provides valuable investigative leads," but adds that it "is confidential and should be restricted to those persons who are participating in the investigation."
However, as the OIG report found, there are numerous problems with the way the USPS has been running the mail covers program. For starters, the USPS has a mail cover app that apparently doesn't work very well and is blamed for the agency continuing to capture information from the mail of 928 targets even after the surveillance period was supposed to have ended. The USPS also appears to have started mail cover surveillance on targets without sufficient justification from law enforcement as to why it was needed, and some USPS employees didn't even keep the written justification on file like they were supposed to. And in a further failure of duty, several mail covers weren't started on time. Perhaps most troubling of all, the USPS doesn't appear to have been accurately reporting the total number of mail covers in its official records provided to the Times under Freedom of Information Act requests, which show only 100,000 total requests for mail surveillance between 2001 and 2012 (an average of 8,000 a year, way fewer than the 49,000 mail covers acknowledged in the OIG report). The USPS said it agreed with the findings of the OIG report and would work to implement changes, but for an agency already struggling with how to move into the future, the findings are hardly good news.