U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement

Ron Nixon, New York Times, July 4, 2013

Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.

“Show all mail to supv”—supervisor—“for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.

“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who with his wife owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Mr. Pickering’s mail but told him nothing else.

As the world focuses on the high-tech spying of the National Security Agency, the misplaced card offers a rare glimpse inside the seemingly low-tech but prevalent snooping of the United States Postal Service.

Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States—about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.

Together, the two programs show that postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.

The mail covers program, used to monitor Mr. Pickering, is more than a century old but is still considered a powerful tool. At the request of law enforcement officials, postal workers record information from the outside of letters and parcels before they are delivered. (Opening the mail would require a warrant.) The information is sent to the law enforcement agency that asked for it. Tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this scrutiny.

The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers. Highly secret, it seeped into public view last month when the F.B.I. cited it in its investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It enables the Postal Service to retrace the path of mail at the request of law enforcement. No one disputes that it is sweeping.


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  • Puggg

    And yet, they disturbingly so often deliver mail to the wrong houses. If their act is so together when it comes to this, why am I always getting Gooby McGoober’s from the other side of town snail mail?

    • CJ Haze

      Because it’s an affirmative action work program. Paul Kersey posted an article stating the #1 occupation for black males in the U.S. is postman (#2 was barber).

      Having a friend that delivered for 25 years, she stated the only ways to get fired from the post office is truancy or not showing up. Other than that, job performance is almost obsolete.

      • The__Bobster
      • The__Bobster

        Yes, one must not conflate the automated part of the system with the AA grunts working on the front line.

      • Strider73

        In Kansas City the two biggest employers of blacks are the post office and the public school system. Cato revealed that statistic in its landmark policy analysis (#298) that has often been referenced here. Not surprisingly, those are the two textbook examples of high-cost, low-quality government monopolies.

  • The funny aspect to this is that the scheme only works to the extent we use the USPS. I usually get packages FedEx or UPS, and sometimes Harbor Freight delivers large shop tools in one of their own trucks.

    Almost everything we receive via US Snail is advertising; even bank statements go to my mother’s house, rather than here. The advertising goes straight into the recycle bin. They might photograph the outside of the boxes of occasional orders from Amazon dot com, but how does that tell them what books (or computer software) are inside?

    I suspect the sheer volume of photographs generated by this program would quickly defeat whatever law-enforcement value it might have.

    • CoweringCoward

      With automation, don’t think that machines could not be designed to scan literally millions of mail pieces an hour. And that new yotta-byte capable monstrosity in Utah needs some data to justify it’s existence. One would be foolish in the extreme to think your mail is not being AT THE MINIMUM scanned externally, probably far more deeply.

      • The problem is not collecting information, but deciding which of it is important. The more of it one collects, the more difficult the job of sorting trash from treasure becomes. Remember that the individual who thought up this program was some African or Mexican dimwit with a room-temperature IQ and a GED; that’s who the Post Office hires.

        • Well, it’s to the point that no one with an IQ over mild fever temperature would be able to deal with working there.

          It would be like being an equal but unequal in a mentally handicapped make work center.

          Your suggesting a new system such as ZIP-4-St#-Apt# or something like that, would be over shadowed by a co-worker who achieved the monumental task of telling a customer the ZIP Code of the post office they were in.

        • CoweringCoward

          Don’t mean to be contrary, but this is not about finding “treasure” in the “chaff” as one would traditionally think. It’s a world-wide blackmail database. All one need do is piss off the right person and your name gets searched for any and everything they can use to crucify you. This will include EVERYTHING you ever said, ordered, read, mailed, liked etc… That is the VALUE of this MONSTER!

          Ever wonder why judges or politicians you thought you knew all of a sudden vote in some INEXPLICABLE way? Well… The American experiment is a total failure friend.

          • WR_the_realist

            You have hit the nail on the head. Your snail mail, email, and phone conversations all go into some giant database and never get seen or heard by a human. So long as you never make waves your entire life nothing happens. But piss off a politician, or get on the radar of the thought police, and they can dig up all your records for the past 20 years, look through them, and crucify you. And if you’re a politician or judge yourself, they have you by the balls.

          • CoweringCoward

            I cannot understand why no one is making this case, it’s so obvious. Once phrased to where is low info crowd can “get it”, it’s indefensible.

  • Puggg

    Tongue in cheek. I know why mail gets delivered to the wrong house. The reason is literacy optional affirmative action letter carriers.

  • As far as wrong mail, I’ve had my own name and address on my mailboxes and mail slots clearly, yet I still often get the wrong mail. I asked the Postmaster of the post office that handled the zip code where I lived about that, and she told me that letter carriers are instructed to disregard names posted on boxes and doors and deliver mail where they best think it should go. The reason they’re told not to assume that posted names have any relationship to the identity of the people who actually live there is because certain kinds of people (wink wink) will post fake names on their mailboxes or doors, to fool the cops, repo men or bill collectors or service processors.

    • Knock, Knock, Knock, Knock.

      “Hello ma’am I’m from the Census Bureau. I need to know how many children you have. This will help to compute the welfare requirements for this area,” the man said.

      “Oh dat bees okay, I has seben chirens” the woman said.

      “Now just so I can be sure of my count could you ask them to come to the door so I can see them,” the man asked?

      “Oh sure. Zyshonne, Zyshonne, Zyshonne, Zyshonne, Zyshonne, Zyshonne, Zyshonne, come here,” she called.

      The man at the door was perplexed and asked, “Now ma’am I need to be sure, are these all your children”?

      Oh yas daze all bees mines,” she said.

      “But if they all have the same first name how do they know which one you are calling when you only want one of them,” he asked.

      “Oh, in dat case I jus calls’em by day last name.”

  • The anthrax attacks had another lingering effect, at least here in Chicago.

    All the workers at the post offices now wear rubber gloves so they can function even slower.

  • mobilebay

    You must be the carrier on my route! I get the wrong mail a lot and there really is no excuse. If the carrier can read, why does he/she get so confused? Of course, the USPS is a government entity, so that may explain it.

  • sbuffalonative

    I don’t recall ever having problems with my mail even when I moved. I’ve always said that considering the volume they deal with every day, I think they have a remarkable accuracy rate.

    • IstvanIN

      I have never understood why people say the post office is so terrible. I rarely have a problem with the mail, despite who they hire.

      • I missed a court summons over community service I was supposed to do. In fact I had finished all 24 hours of it, but the DA’s office didn’t read their fax from Front Range Community Services. I never received the summons, so a warrant was issued for my arrest. When I was taken to court, the judge had the proof of completion in my file. Not only did the USPS drop the ball, but the DA’s office as well.

        I frequently receive mail addressed to other residents of my townhouse complex, so I simply put these pieces into the collection box for another trip through the system after writing “misdelivered” on them. I wish someone had done that with my 2010 summons.

  • David Ashton

    “White man speak with forked tongue.”
    Did I say “white” man?

  • The__Bobster

    Yes, just another group of “peaceful” leftists.

    • To give you an idea how “peaceful” they are, those tree spikes are intended to cause chainsaws to bounce back into the men using them.

      • IstvanIN

        That is terrible. they want to kill the logger who is just doing his job/ That is sick.

        • They think they’re “saving the environment”, even though companies involved in forestry replant after they are done logging an area. Of course the animals move out right away; the noise and presence of humans would accomplish this even if the trees weren’t being cut. Since the cut areas are replanted, with saplings, it’s fair to say that timber in the US is a crop. The libtard idiots could just as rationally protest wheat or corn cultivation. Additionally, I have yet to hear them explain what substitutes should be used for furniture in place of wood. Plastic is a petroleum product, and they don’t like those, and production of steel requires the use of lots of coal to smelt the iron ore, which produces lots of CO2.

  • What’s going to help their cause is the introduction of quantum computing.

  • They’d simply reach data overload even quicker that way, and it would do nothing to address the near-impossibility of tracking someone who takes the bus and pays cash. Tracking the license plate on a privately-owned vehicle is one thing; tracking some random pedestrian wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a ball cap as he gets onto a city bus and makes a few transfers on his trip? Forget it. If I go north to Boulder by bus, there’s a record of my having purchased a Greyhound ticket, but the trail goes stone cold in downtown Denver because I walk six blocks to the Market Street RTD station and pay cash for the ride to Boulder. Wearing a ball cap and sunglasses, I could be anyone, so far as the RTD station surveillance video would show, especially since I don’t look anything like a 47 year-old.

  • I think bombs are probably the biggest fear; the number of people both willing and able to handle anthrax or ricin is probably fairly limited. Even as a trained laboratory chemist I certainly wouldn’t be too keen on poisoning myself; back in the day I also refused to have anything to do with beryllium-containing ceramics. My boss wasn’t too happy about that.

  • KenelmDigby

    I know that photography and data storage are very cheap these days due to the electronic revolultion, but to my mind it still seems like a colossal waste of time and money.
    ‘Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut’ is the phrase that springs to mind.

    • It is a waste of money, because however much they automate the photo work, they’ll still have to pay someone to interpret what they’re getting.

  • MartelC

    Don’t worry folks, it’s just to track ‘terrorists’… of course we know that the definition of terrorist includes people RIAA don’t like.. but only crazy conspiracy nuts would think that it would be used to track political enemies. Only racists think that. Just like the racist accusations about Obama and the IRS.

    Racism is EVIL!

  • MartelC

    Gosh I am sure the NYT would have a soft piece if the guy were a member of oh, say American Renaissance…

    • The one sure lesson that we can take away from everything that we have seen over the past several decades is that these people are dedicated to their goals. They will not play soft ball or nicey nice. The rules do not exist for them, only the end goal. The goal is one race, one government, one religion and no white people. Except maybe for themselves as a sort of new monarchy.

      Its called white genocide.

  • Pelagian

    “The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers.”

    In so many, many ways, we have given the terrorists their victory.

    • WR_the_realist

      Exactly. If the terrorists “hate our freedoms” the neocons have given them exactly what they want.

  • USPS counter workers only touch a dirty package if a postal box holder received one and they have to retrieve it. Other than that the only things they touch are mail people are sending, money, and the stamps they are selling.

  • MartelC

    Wow, he just attended a conference and he’s suspended. Do you think that would happen to a marxist or belonged to Noah Inglov (sp) ‘abolish the white race’ movement? No. The army is taking marching orders from the SPLC -which even many on the left admit is corrupt organization that demonizes political dissent.

    Wow…I know we all say ‘how much lower can we sink’ but it seems we’re in a bottomless pit.

  • I am sure that working at the Post Office is a big job but I am also certain that the lackadaisical nature of the African savage is universal regardless of the job performed.

  • Paleoconn

    It becomes a serious issue when leftie environmentalists get spied on by the gummint before which they habitually prostrate themselves.

    • In March 2001 (before the 9/11 attacks, it is true) the FBI declared ecoterrorism to be the number-one terrorist threat in the United States, and in February 2002, congressional hearings were held on the subject.

  • And the British government is doing precisely the same thing.

  • FourFooted_Messiah

    🙂 I grew up in Canada when the BNA act was still our constitution (and I’d rather have it back, the Charter is not for us). This is also the time when Pierre Trudeau, hater of all things Anglo and known Marxist, declared Martial Law (known here as the War Measures Act) in order to shut down a bunch of Quebecois terrorists known as the FLQ.

    After the FLQ was destroyed, PET conveniently forgot to rescind the War Measures Act. No one noticed until Brian Mulroney rescinded it sometime in the 1980s (can’t remember when, sorry.)

    During that time, yes, the RCMP was allowed to open any darn mail they saw fit to. No one had a problem with that, though, because the populace hadn’t swung so far to the left yet. The enactment of the WMA was actually a POPULAR move, btw.

    I have also had my mail opened, for good enough reason – I still have the box with the official red tape telling me that border services opened it to take a look. What was it? A ceramic collector’s water-pipe in the shape of a dragon that I had ordered from Amsterdam. This is quite legal in my province, so they sent it along to me, because, of course, there was no contraband involved. Now, if I was still living in Ontario, I’d have been in trouble, because they banned “paraphenalia” ages ago.

    Want to open my mail? Go ahead. All the shady stuff goes by Greyhound courier anyway, you silly people.

    • I’m suprised that would be called “paraphenalia”. In US states, something like that is considered a novelty. Only if it has drug residue in it does it become “drug paraphenalia” here. This distinction is a bit more reasonable; after all, it is entirely possible to smoke reefer in an Irish briar pipe or a Meerschaum.

      • FourFooted_Messiah

        Of course. But Ontario is as it is – and what it is is why I got fed up and left for Alberta. Sometime, oh, in the early 90s, they banned “paraphenalia”, and that province is also where the smoking bans started. I wouldn’t be surprised if they banned Zig-Zags, ffs. Also alligator clips – maybe those are OK as long as they don’t have feathers on. 😛 The Indians must be thrilled about that.

  • BobWhitakerisokay

    Well, we all know the bang up job USPS does delivering the mail so photographing it too will be just as momentous. Still need a warrant to read mail? Don’t make me laugh.
    Proposition countries cannot dispense with police state surveillance and enforcement.

  • WR_the_realist

    You can thank the Unabomber for that, an American grown lone terrorist. And he is a white guy. So yeah, we white people have our bad eggs too.

  • WR_the_realist

    Most of the mail sorting is done automatically, using optical character recognition. There’s no reason why the mail envelopes can’t be digitally photographed at the same time. And I’m sure the NSA has some mind boggling storage capacity to keep all the compressed images. So this is actually perfectly feasible. There is negligible human intervention so the labor costs are trivial.