Snail mail offers no escape from monitoring

yellow mailbox

Over the past month, a series of leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the government's program that collects records of Americans' phone calls, e-mails and other electronic data.

A July 3 report in the New York Times, however, suggests that America's oldest form of long-distance communication – what's now called snail mail in the era of email and text messages – is also heavily monitored for law enforcement purposes through tools and programs developed by the U.S. Postal Service.

According to the report, the USPS' Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MACT) program uses computers to photograph the outside of every piece of mail processed in the United States – approximately 160 billion pieces per year. The resulting database allows employees to "retrace the path of mail at the request of law enforcement," the Times reported.

The program, created after letters containing anthrax killed two postal inspectors and three others in 2001, is a sweeping expansion of the government's "mail covers" program, created over a century ago to allow officials to record information contained on the outside of parcels before delivery at law enforcement's request. Thousands of mail pieces still undergo examination through mail covers for reasons of criminal activity or national security.

While federal officials are not allowed to open mail without a warrant, the MACT gives the USPS the technological means to capture valuable metadata that allows officials a retroactive look at names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations -- effectively allowing them to map connections between mail senders. It is unclear how long those records are kept, or where they are stored.

These tools give the USPS the ability to monitor snail mail in much the same way as the NSA monitors and stores phone and e-mail records, allowing officials to paint a detailed sketch of a customer's contacts, habits and whereabouts without actually knowing the contents of a specific piece of mail.

USPS officials declined to comment on the story to FCW, but the agency charged with providing the nation's mail is a known worldwide supercomputing leader, providing real-time fraud analysis on 528 million pieces of mail per day with one of the most powerful non-classified supercomputing facilities in the world.

The Eagan IT and Accounting Service Center in Eagan, Minn., operates with 16 terabytes of in-memory computing that allows it to scan 6,100 mail pieces per second from around the country and compare in real-time relevant information, including carrier and routing data, weight and size, to a database of about 400 billion records. While USPS officials would not comment on the IT infrastructure used to support the MACT program, it would require systems much like those used for fraud analysis.

MACT came to light in June after the Federal Bureau of Investigation cited the program after it pinpointed a Texas woman as the likely sender of ricin-laced letters to President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"It's a treasure trove of information," former FBI agent James Wedick told the Times. Wedick, who spent 34 years at the agency and used mail covers in a number of investigations, said these surveillance tools were useful, but easy to abuse.

"Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena," Wedick said. "It can be easily abused because it's so easy to use and you don't have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.


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