Tracking of U.S. mail by police, feds found to lack controls

Last modified: 11/4/2014 7:29:11 PM
The U.S. Postal Service granted 49,000 requests by law enforcement to track people’s mail in 2013 under a program that often lacked proper approval, adequate justification and required annual reviews, a recent audit found.

Those deficiencies can “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,” according to an inspector general’s audit published in May. Names of the agencies and police departments that requested the tracking were redacted.

The report shows yet another layer of the U.S. government’s surveillance tactics at a time when the public is on edge about the extensive electronic spying revealed last year by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The Postal Service program’s “insufficient controls” cited in the audit only add to the alarm for privacy advocates.

“This sort of fast and loose surveillance of individuals’ communications is unacceptable,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology. “A program like this, which can reveal sensitive correspondence, must have proper oversight, authority, and justification – and it appears that privacy controls were developed, but not followed.”

The program lets authorities ask to record the names, addresses and other information on the outside of mail to help protect national security or help in criminal probes. Local law enforcement uses the program often to locate fugitives, or to obtain evidence or identify forfeitable assets in criminal investigations, according to the report.

Of 196 tracking requests reviewed, “21 percent were approved without written authority and 13 percent were not adequately justified or reasonable grounds were not transcribed accurately,” the Postal Service’s inspector general office said in the audit. “Also, 15 percent of the inspectors who conducted did not have the required nondisclosure form on file.”

The New York Times published details on the little-noticed audit in its editions yesterday.

A spokesman for the Postal Service didn’t immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.

The completeness, accuracy and consistency of the data collected was also called into question, as 928 tracking requests were found to be active even though their cover periods had expired, the report shows.

In addition, the Postal Service didn’t have procedures to ensure required annual reviews were done and, in the past three fiscal years, provided evidence of only one review, the audit found.

“The revelation of yet another massive intrusion into our privacy as American citizens – this time by way of the U.S. Postal Service - is extremely disturbing, yet not surprising in the new national security state,” said Mark Brodin, a professor at Boston College Law School, in an email.

Brodin said that the protection of Americans’ communications from unreasonable searches and seizures have been eroded by the U.S. Supreme Court and the White House, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Thus when we bank, or make a telephone call, or send a letter, and consequently convey information to the financial institution or phone company or USPS, that information is up for grabs by the government without the need for any judge’s approval,” he said.




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