The United States Postal Service photographs and records the information on the outside of every piece of mail sent in America — 160 billion every year — the New York Times reported Wednesday.
Under the auspices of a program called Mail Isolation Control and Tracking, the USPS stores the details of physical correspondences in a way that some have characterized as analogous to the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone “metadata.” Unlike the details of the much-publicized NSA program, however, many aspects of the USPS system, called “mail covers,” remain unclear.
The MICT program’s existence only came to light because it helped the FBI investigate a series of ricin-laced letters sent to nationally prominent politicians like President Barack Obama and New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Authorized in reaction to the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001, the MICT program does not require a warrant to collect the data that it stores. Instead, law enforcement agencies must only place a request to the USPS, without the approval from a judge that opening someone’s mail would require.
The Times reported that the FBI, DEA and HHS have all used mail covers to prosecute cases of domestic terrorism, drug smuggling and Medicare fraud.
It remains unclear if the programs’ existence will spark the same level of outrage and sense of violation that the NSA cyber-snooping program has triggered. Snail mail use has certainly declined in the modern era of smart phones and the internet, but law enforcement officials maintain that the ability to retro-actively investigate individuals based on their physical communications is still useful.
“It’s a treasure trove of information,” former FBI agent James J. Wedick told the Times. “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.”