A month ago TheGuardian released a story that claimed the US Postal Service had been part of a program similar to PRISM. But the claims were never officially confirmed, and so it remained a fairly obscure accusation. That is until today, when the New York Times confirmed the rumors and the existence of the program.
In the article, they tell the story of Leslie James Pickering, a former member of the eco-radical group The Earth Liberation Front. He found a card in his mail that ordered postal workers to monitor everythingl he received and report it to their supervisor. The card, though marked as confidential, was accidentally delivered to him.
This is a program called The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking Program. It was established in 2001 after a wave of Anthrax attacks that caused panic across the US. Anonymous sources told the Times that every years more than 160 billion pieces of mail are subject to the program, and tens of thousands of envelops are logged through photos and kept for the law enforcement agencies and the NSA.
Like PRISM, it doesn’t authorize anyone to actually read the contents. A warrant is – thankfully – still needed for that. But in the same way PRISM allows metadata to be tracked from the web, so to can such details be tracked from traditional mail. Who is writing you, their address, your address, any customs stamps it has received, and physical details like smell can all be viewed and made part of an official investigation. Any information can be used to justify a warrant for further investigation.
Why is this disturbing? If a warrant is needed, isn’t it all above board? The issue here is really the scope of the surveillance. All mail is sorted, tens of thousands are subject to further requests by agencies, which are almost never rejected by the US Postal Service. Just think of how much manpower and energy that requires. Or how much information they can get just from the information located on an envelop, but without any context such as the contents of the mail.
One of the biggest arguments people have made over the years against secret government surveillance has been how ridiculously inefficient it would be. How the government wouldn’t have the power or scope or ability to monitor so many people. But if this has taught us anything, it is that they have a lot more capability than we originally thought.
Source: NY Times