Think Your Mail's Private? Not to the Government

Wednesday, 03 Jul 2013 08:15 PM

By Greg Richter

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If you thought you were safe from the government's spying eyes by sticking with old-fashioned snail mail, think again.

A couple of government programs look at the outside of Americans' paper mail. One, more than 100 years old, is called mail covers, and is used when the government believes it has reason to be suspicious of someone.

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That's what happened to Leslie James Pickering, according to The New York Times.

Pickering owns a bookstore in Buffalo, N.Y., but at one time — more than 10 years ago — he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group that the FBI considered eco-terrorists.

Pickering discovered his mail was being monitored when a memo alerting post-office employees to his correspondence was accidentally left in his mailbox.

The process involves U.S. Postal Service employees recording information on the outside of all letters and packages before delivery, and delivering the information to the law enforcement agency that has requested the information. Looking inside the correspondence itself requires a warrant.

But after the anthrax attacks in 2001, an expanded program was created, dubbed the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program. In it, the outside of all mail is photographed from every side and the pictures are stored.

Though the program is secret, details emerged publicly after ricin-laced letters were sent to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in June.

"In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime," Mark D. Rasch, who worked several fraud cases using mail covers for the U.S. Justice Department, told the Times. "Now it seems to be 'Let's record everyone's mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.' Essentially you've added mail covers on millions of Americans."


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