NSA, Move Over: The Postal Service is America’s New Privacy Problem

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Watch out Edward Snowden; privacy issues have left your inbox and crawled out of the computer screen once more into the “real world,” or the post office. Snowden, former National Security Agency (NSA) consultant, drew national attention to invasion of privacy without proper oversight, releasing a number of government documents to the press and public, which drew attention to the oversteps. In particular, phone calls were a concern, with the NSA keeping a backlog of data stored up on calls made across the U.S..

Various tech companies, from Google to Facebook, have made complaints about information demands from the NSA and law enforcement institutions, saying greater protection for citizens should be in place, a sentiment echoed by the Obama Administration — though for some of their efforts did not go far enough toward mitigating invasion of privacy. Recently, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) made its own contribution to the privacy debate, with the Office of Inspector General releasing a statement voicing concern over the USPS’s practice of turning outside information from envelopes over to law enforcement, known as mail cover.

What is a mail cover?

According to the Manual for Mail Cover Requests, mail cover is “the process by which a nonconsensual record is made of any data appearing on the outside cover of any sealed or unsealed class of mail matter.” It’s information that is only usable for the sake of finding a fugitive, safekeeping national security, seeking evidence of a crime or “commission of a crime” to show evidence of postal statute infraction, or to help find property or items of a sort “forfeitable under law.” The statement comes alongside an audit report done in May, and notes that there are many privacy concerns that go with dealing with these police envelope turnovers, which is why USPS “must follow detailed procedures before allowing a mail cover.” However, according to the statement, this procedure has not been enough.

The U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General recently reviewed 196 external mail covers and found some controls lacking. For example, 21% of the covers we examined were approved without the required written athorization and 13% were not adequately justified,” stated the Office of Inspector General in releasing the audit.

What Needs to Change?

The report itself, speckled lightly with some redacted information lists four main recommendations, including “controls” and “procedures” that would help to make sure necessary are properly in place and protocols are followed. It also included comments from management, which suggested each recommendation would be followed with a specific plan of action to ensure better functioning in the future.

It’s in the Postal Service’s best interest to investigate and identify major internal problems, as self-criticism has a way of fairing better under the public eye than being outed for breaching the privacy standards acceptable to the public. “Insufficient controls could 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,” warned the audit.

The president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Theodore Simon, spoke with concern to the New York Times regarding the audit. “It appears that there have been widespread disregard of the few protections that were supposed to be in place,” said Mr. Simon. The Postal Service Versus Phone Data

A spokesman for the Postal Inspection Service, Paul J. Krenn, measured the mail cover concerns against NSA concerns over the last year or so, emphasizing that they aren’t comparable. According to the New York Times, Krenn said that the Postal Service is less invasive and has a more stringent policy in place to prevent abuse. “You can’t just get a mail cover to go on a fishing expedition,” he said, “there has to be a legitimate law enforcement reason, and the mail cover can’t be the sole tool.”

It’s arguable that unlike phone data and computer intrusion, physical paper mail is considerably less prevalent and vital in the day-to-day lives of many Americans. Texting and email have become hourly or daily, whereas mail has become almost outdated, and cyber attacks, like the one seen on the White House’s unclassified EOP network, are often the security threat in today’s day and age.

Yet there are still a number of vital uses for it, and the privacy concerns are still valid and important for American citizens. And when it comes to criminal content, the mail can absolutely be dangerous in ways an email often cannot; for example when it plays a role in transporting dangerous materials like anthrax or bombs.

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