Suspicious packages spotlight vast postal surveillance system - USPS photographs the outside of all mail and frequently shares images and metadata from mail with cops

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From [HERE] As law enforcement investigates possible mail bombs sent to prominent Democratic Party figures and liberal activists, the tools available at their disposal include digital images and delivery metadata commonly associated with mail sent in the United States.

The U.S. Postal Service regularly photographs the front and back of every piece of U.S. mail, or about 150 billion parcels, envelopes, and postcards every year. A longstanding practice known as the “mail cover” program enables law enforcement to obtain address information and images of the outsides of mail as part of an investigation without the need for a warrant through the Postal Inspection Service, the U.S. Postal Service’s policing arm.

According to a report from CBS News, authorities are currently using “data analytics” to spot similar packages to those identified as containing bombs. Images of packages shared with the press show a common return address, using the misspelled name of Representative and former Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

The Postal Inspection Service doesn’t generally comment on its investigative techniques. The agency referred questions from Fast Company to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the lead agency on the case, which declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.


As part of the mail cover program, mail is routinely digitally photographed as part of the sorting process and even available for recipients to digitally preview in some areas. Apart from threats like bombs, the department says its main focus is on mail theft, fraud, and narcotics cases.

Because a mail cover involves reading only information on the outside of the envelope or package, courts have not ruled it a violation of the Fourth Amendment. But that hasn’t stilled concerns about privacy and abuse.

For decades, the relatively obscure program has come under criticism for its lack of protections, for allowing data to be shared in broader cases than postal regulations allow, and for operating largely outside of public view. Critics have also warned that extensive surveillance of someone’s mail, especially combined with other surveillance, could create privacy violations.

After an audit, the Postal Service inspector general determined in 2014 that the Inspection Service did not have “sufficient controls” in place to ensure that its employees followed the agency’s policies in handling national security mail covers.

“Insufficient controls over the mail covers program 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,” it warned in a report.

Mail covers drew fire in the 1970s as part of government surveillance of groups deemed subversive, after a 15-year-old girl was apparently put under surveillance for writing a letter to a radical group. She had reportedly actually intended to contact a similarly named organization as part of a homework assignment.

But in the ongoing mail bomb case, use of mail covers is probably justified and in line with regulations, says Steven Morrison, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota, who was the author of a 2015 report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers calling for greater oversight of the program.

“This is going to have no difficulty in satisfying any regulation,” he says. “Clearly this is a good use of the mail cover program.”


Beyond names and addresses, exactly what data about mail is available and how it can be accessed and searched through the program isn’t publicly known.

While an agency spokesperson declined to comment on its techniques—”in order to prevent attempts to compromise the effectiveness of our investigative methods”—they say in an email that the agency had a “targeted strategy of specialized technology screening protocols and employee training” in place, and add that postal inspectors have various tools at their disposal when potentially dangerous mail is identified.[MORE]