It’s not as bad as they say, then again, maybe it’s worse. Monitoring the Mail.

Guest Post by Mark Jamison, retired Postmaster Webster, N.C.

It’s been said that “life imitates art” but the idea of government spying on its citizens didn’t originate with George Orwell and his version of “Big Brother”. The United States has a long history of spying on its citizens. The revelations of the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee, offered chilling details of the activities of the CIA, the FBI, and other intelligence agencies, including revelations that agencies had opened and photographed more than 215,000 pieces of mail.

The legacy of the 1975 Church Committee was the introduction of FISA Courts and other safeguards that were supposed to protect the privacy of American citizens. Unfortunately the national security state arising after 9/11 and the unconnected anthrax attacks have tested the effectiveness of those protections calling into question the reach of intelligence agencies like the NSA.

Recent news reports claim the Postal Service has also been involved in spying on U.S. citizens. A July 2013 report in the NYT that was ostensibly about the mail cover program also reported that “Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail processed in the United States – about 160 billion pieces last year”. That report was picked up and repeated by several news organizations and sites on the internet.

In May of this year the OIG of the Postal Service released an audit on mail covers, a manual program collecting address information from mail going to particular addresses. Several media outlets reported on the audit. Many of those reports recycled the claim that all mail is photographed.

The Mail Cover program has been around for years. Run by the Postal Inspection Service, the program manually tracks mail to an address. The audit shows that 50,000 covers were instituted last year. The vast majority, about 85%, are initiated by the Postal Inspection Service which runs investigations on mail fraud, the distribution of child pornography, and the use of the mails to deliver illicit drugs. About 6,000 mail covers were initiated by State and Federal agencies. The report was redacted so we don’t know how many of those covers were initiated by intelligence agencies like the NSA.

The claim the Postal Service photographs the exterior of every paper mailpiece really needs some clarification. As automation of mail processing increased one of the techniques used to increase the amount of mail subject to automation involved photographing mailpieces that were not OCR readable and sending the images to stations where humans tried to read the address, thereby allowing a barcode to be applied to the mailpiece. After the 2001 anthrax attacks, a program known as Mail Isolation Control and Tracking was put in place. This program allowed for additional photo capture of exterior address information.

So is it accurate to say that all mail is being photographed? More important, is the information stored in a way that can be searched, manipulated, and retrieved?

The answer is a qualified “yes.” The Postmaster General offered some explanations of the systems; but rather than take the company line, I contacted several ETs. These are the technicians maintaining the automation machinery. They all gave me pretty much the same answer and it fits in with my personal experience in the Postal Service. This is the answer I got from a former ET that pretty much covers it:

As an ex ET who worked on and was trained on every piece of mail processing equipment we have, I can tell you the stories were . . . partially correct. But the spirit of the stories was wrong. The articles I read regarding the picture taking of mail seemed to try to lead the public on some conspiracy theorizing about big brother spying. It isn’t like that. We do take a picture of both sides of every piece of letter mail and flat mail that runs on a AFCS (Advanced Facer Canceller System) for letters or the AFSM-100 (Automated Flat Sorting Machine) for flat mail. These are advanced processing platforms. The photos we take are for processing and sortation purposes. The images are only used for processing. There is no way to process the images for any unsavory purpose. The images are discarded after use. Once an image is used to identify an 11 digit barcode data from the national directory subsystem (NDSS) the image is trashed. We do store the address barcode and ID tag data for 30 days for possible troubleshooting purposes in tracking and service; but after doing so, the barcode and ID data are trashed. The sheer size of a system required if we kept images permanently would be mammoth. And why would we want to do so? It makes no sense. Anyway I’m wondering why they did not get an experts advice before they promulgated a misleading story. 

A couple of additional points are in order here. First, not all mail goes through the AFCS systems, some mail goes directly to the machines doing the final sorts. It is likely that mail that might be of interest to someone spying on you, hand addressed items and items of a personal nature – not advertising mail or bills, would go through the systems that do the photo-imaging. It also needs to be pointed out that while the Postal Service does not seem to have the capability to manipulate this data, the NSA certainly could have the ability to manipulate the raw data.

So should we be concerned that the Postal Service is being used to spy on us? My answer to that is a qualified maybe with an additional, more serious concern that we will get to in a minute. First, based on the existing reports the concern should really be about the mail covers program and how that is being used. The OIG audit is critical of the way the Postal Service responds to mail covers, a problem that actually affects law enforcement’s ability to use the program effectively.

The NYT story linked to above is about a man who found a marker that showed he was the target of a mail cover. I imagine that can be kind of scary, finding out some agency wants to know who is mailing you stuff. Mail covers are handled through the Postal Inspection Service and do not necessarily require warrants; although, a warrant is required for law enforcement to open first class mail. At the very least Congress should review the mail cover program and ensure that it is properly monitored and that it is appropriately transparent.

As for the problems raised by electronic monitoring of the mail, the photographic system alluded to in the articles, seems very much ado about very little, particularly in light of a much more problematic program the Postal Service is rolling out, Intelligent Mail, or IMb.

IMb is an expanded and enriched barcode system that is becoming the compulsory standard for business mailers and will eventually become ubiquitous. The system is designed to provide end to end visibility, allowing a letter to be tracked from when it enters the system to when it goes out for delivery. I have a friend in San Francisco with an IMb account. When he mails me a letter he can track when it is picked up and every plant it is processed through right up to the point to where it is sorted to my mail carrier.

All that sounds wonderful but if you are scared about Big Brother scenarios, consider the fact that IMb mail contains the address information, we worry about being photographed, in a format that can be stored for extended periods of 45 days or longer, and manipulated. When fully operational, IMb will offer the potential to identify every piece of mail coming from and going to an address in a format useful to many entities.

I don’t like the idea of the government being able to identify every piece of mail coming from my return address or every letter coming to me. I am also not sure I want Amazon, Google, Facebook, or anyone else commercial or otherwise having the information either. There have been several articles regarding Postal Service initiatives on data mining (e.g., here , here, here) and its changing relationships with advertisers; none of which give comfort to anyone concerned about the way corporations collect and use personal information. Mailers ought to have concerns about the potential for abuse embodied in IMb, conceivably IMb information could be used to reconstruct mailing lists, possibly handing proprietary information to competitors.

We live in an era of Big Data. There is tremendous potential in Big Data but with it comes the loss of privacy, anonymity, and perhaps even individual identity. Big Brother, whether in the form of government or large corporations, has serious implications for society; the role of the Postal Service is an important piece of the puzzle.