A report released Tuesday from the USPS Inspector General’s office reveals far more surveillance of U.S. mail and subsequent flags to law enforcement agencies than previously known.
According to the report, the U.S. Postal Service flagged information for 49,000 government surveillance requests in 2013 and turned over a large portion of the names, addresses and postmarked dates gleaned to law enforcement without the knowledge of senders or receivers. The content of the mail were reportedly not examined, and details were limited to information pulled from mail exteriors.
The program in question, dubbed “mail covers,” has been around for more than 100 years according to a New York Times report, and allows agents of law enforcement who have already identified a target suspected of a felony to request USPS capture all of the outside information on a target’s mail for 30 days or longer. The agents must provide USPS with the target’s address and present a compelling reason for the surveillance request.
“Law enforcement agencies use this information to protect national security; locate fugitives; obtain evidence; or help identify property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under criminal law,” the report said. “A mail cover is justified when it will further an investigation or provide evidence of a crime. The U.S. Postal Service is responsible for recording and forwarding the data to the Postal Inspection Service for further processing. Postal Service and law enforcement officials must ensure compliance with privacy policies to protect the privacy of customers, employees, and other individuals’ information.”
That’s where USPS is running into problems: the report highlights numerous instances of negligence and abuse, including surveilling the mail of 928 targets after the expiration of their approved spying windows.
Out of 196 mail cover requests reviewed, the IG’s office found 21 percent were approved without written authorization and 13 percent “were not adequately justified or reasonable grounds were not transcribed accurately.” Fifteen percent of inspectors responsible for conducting mail covers didn’t even have their corresponding non-disclosure forms on file.
The report also revealed USPS appeared to inaccurately report the number of mail covers in a Times Freedom of Information Act request, in which it reported 100,000 total requests between 2001 and 2012, making for an average of 8,000 per year — far fewer than the near-50,000 cited in Tuesday’s IG report.
In addition, an earlier 2014 audit highlighting many of the same concerns revealed numerous mail cover requests were not processed on time, while others were assigned the incorrect tracking number as a result of computer errors.