Postal Service gets called out on spying program

A Postal Service surveillance program that records the information on the outside of letters and packages delivered to people suspected of criminal activity should be overhauled because of a lack of oversight, according to a report by a national defense lawyers’ group.
An audit by the service’s inspector general last year found that about 20 percent of the orders for surveillance under the program, known as mail covers, were improperly approved. The New York Times reported on abuses in the program, including a case in which law enforcement officials in Arizona used it to investigate a political opponent.
The report, released on Tuesday, suggests that Congress pass legislation to bar any evidence obtained through the misuse of mail covers. It also urges outside reviews of requests for mail covers similar to those conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for national security requests.
High standards of evidence by law enforcement agencies to justify mail covers, which are currently almost always approved, are also suggested in the report, postal officials said during a congressional hearing last year. It also calls on the service to explain why it keeps data from mail covers for eight years, while the National Security Agency keeps the data it collects for five years. The report recommends that the service reduce the amount of time it keeps the information.
The lawyers’ group, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the disclosures about the program troubling.
“While mail covers have existed since the 19th century, their use in the last 30 years has exploded,” said Steven R. Morrison, a law professor at the University of North Dakota who wrote the report. “At the same time, government agents have consistently and systematically failed to follow regulations governing mail covers.”
The Postal Inspection Service works hand in hand with law enforcement agencies that ask the Postal Service to aid investigations into fraud, pornography, terrorism and other criminal activity. Postal workers record names, return addresses and any other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered. (Opening the mail requires a warrant.)
Even in an era of bulk collection of information, law enforcement officials say the deceptively old-fashioned mail covers program remains a powerful investigative tool, providing a wealth of information about the business dealings and associates of suspects.
But the defense lawyers’ report said the program was ripe for abuse because it was not subject to judicial review. The Postal Service has the sole authority to grant or deny the tens of thousands of mail covers requests each year. In other government surveillance programs, like wiretaps, a federal judge must sign off on the requests.
Court challenges to mail covers have generally failed because judges have ruled that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for information on the outside of a letter. But the new report says a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found that the police had violated the Constitution by placing a tracking device on a suspect’s car might open the door to challenges.
Guy Cottrell, the chief of the Postal Inspection Service, told lawmakers last year that the agency had made several changes in the way it managed the mail covers program. He said that the agency had updated its computer system to make sure information on each mail cover was recorded correctly, and that it was developing a process to bar law enforcement agencies that abuse the program from being approved for use of mail covers.
The program is just one of several used by the Postal Service for law enforcement purposes. The agency also has a program called Mail Imaging, in which its computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail sent in the United States. The program’s primary purpose is to process the mail, but in some cases law enforcement agencies can request stored images of mail sent to and received by people they are investigating.
Another system, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking Program, was created after anthrax attacks killed five people, including two postal workers, in late 2001. It is used to track or investigate packages and letters suspected of containing biohazards like anthrax or ricin.
The new report did not specifically address those programs.

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