Snooping from the USPS? Seriously?

Truth really is stranger than fiction.

This recent New York Times article tells the story of the either incredible good luck of Leslie James Pickering, or the incredibly bad day some postal worker had in Buffalo, New York. Leslie got a handwritten card mixed in with his mail that obviously was not intended for him to ever see. From the article:

“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.

(The article refers to this as “mail covers” which is a forerunner of the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program.)

To their credit, postal workers did confirm they were monitoring his mail but didn’t tell him anything else. Mail cannot (usually) be opened without a warrant so all the US Postal Service can do in this case is record the addressing and other information from envelopes (traffic analysis). The frightening thing about this type of surveillance is that there’s absolutely no judicial oversight on its use. The USPS allows any law enforcement agency to track mail by filling out a form, and rarely denies requests.

From what I have seen, law enforcement often jumps to conclusions without having all the facts (some of my posts after this one will discuss examples of this, in fact). Any cop with an axe to grind against me could easily misuse the information about who is sending mail to me–or the other people living at my address.

I am disgusted by the abuse of power being shown here against an activist bookstore owner (who is married with a kid, no less). Does Leslie have a rather lengthy arrest record? Yes, but only for misdemeanors, never for the arson attacks carried out by the Earth Liberation Front. Judging by the Wikipedia article about him, any such arrests as part of his involvement with the ELF probably took place more than a decade ago–hardly a reason to aggressively watch Leslie today in any form.

But it gets even worse. Even for the vast majority of us who have never been convicted of a crime, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program (MICT) photographs the outside of every piece of paper mail processed in the US–at last count this was 160 billion pieces a year. And there is nothing saying how long the government saves the mail cover images. Even assuming each photograph of the outside of a mail piece takes a whole megabyte (1024^2 bytes), that’s in the neighborhood of 142 petabytes for a year’s worth of mail. That’s a worst case estimate, a pessimistic but more likely estimate would be around 50 to 75 petabytes for reference-quality images (grayscale JPEG at about 150 dpi or so), and quite possibly less than that. A lot of storage space? For us, maybe, but make no mistake about it, this is easily doable by any reasonably sized government agency, and the actual address information in text form (if it’s determined the images are no longer needed) would take orders of magnitude less.

I honesly think MICT is doing more harm than good. We had a right to know about MICT when it was started in 2001 and the fact we didn’t even know about it for years is completely unacceptable opacity on the part of our government. If for whatever reason it’s decided to keep MICT we need full transparency on exactly how long the data is kept, and assurance it is securely deleted when no longer needed.