How police use the mail to spy on you: 60,000 cases in last decade with little pushback

How police use the mail to spy on you: 60,000 cases in last decade with little pushback

In the last decade, the US Postal Surface has received more than 60,000 requests from law enforcement for information based on inspecting people’s mail, a congressional probe found, with the agency granting virtually all of them.

Since 2015 alone, the USPS has granted 97 percent of requests from agencies like the IRS, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security, sharing information gleaned from the outside of mail like names and addresses in a practice known as mail cover.

Though the practice is legal, it has come in for criticism from a group of US senators, whose questions to the USPS in 2023 prompted the disclosure of the recent mail cover data, which was first reported by The Washington Post.

“These new statistics show that thousands of Americans are subjected to warrantless surveillance each year and that the Postal Inspection Service rubber stamps practically all of the requests they receive,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon told the paper, arguing the USPS was “refusing to raise its standards and require law enforcement agencies monitoring the outside of Americans’ mail to get a court order, which is already required to monitor emails and texts.”

In response to a May 2023 letter from Wyden and a group seven other senators, USPS chief postal inspector Gary Barksdale cited jurisprudence dating back to the 1870s, when the US Supreme Court found, as part of a case about lotteries operating via mail, that Americans were entitled to an expectation of privacy for what’s inside their letters, information that requires a warrant to access.

What’s on the outside, on the other hand, is fair game, Barksdale said.

“There is no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to information contained on the outside of mail matter,” he wrote.

The mail inspection efforts aren’t as controversial as another aspect of US law enforcement information gathering that was extended this year.

In April, Joe Biden reauthorized Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows law enforcement to gather information without a warrant from foreigners who are overseas, including their communications with Americans stationed in the US.

The 2008 law has been criticized from both the right and left as a means of warrantless surveillance of Americans.