Updated, 12:29 p.m. EDT | Law enforcement agencies tracked tens of thousands of pieces of mail of Americans in 2013 with the United States Postal Service’s approval, something that concerns civil liberties advocates.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service recorded data on mail covers to maintain surveillance on people’s mail. The purpose of this surveillance was “to protect national security; locate fugitives; obtain evidence; or help identify property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under criminal law,” the Postal Service’s Inspector General report said.
The Postal Inspection Service received roughly 49,000 requests to monitor people’s mail, both internally and from law enforcement agencies outside of the Postal Service.
The audit was “self-initiated” by the Postal Service’s Office of the Inspector General, according to the report.
Postal Service procedures were not always followed “when handling mail cover requests,” the audit says. This absence of protocol “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,” according to the audit.
The authority that empowers this program does not surprise Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, but he said in a written statement that he was taken aback by the program’s scale and scope.
“When a targeted surveillance tool is used on this scale, the distinction between targeted and dragnet surveillance begins to seem academic,” Jaffer said in an e-mail statement to the NewsHour. “The fact that the government is monitoring so many people without probable cause or judicial oversight is yet another reminder that the rules limiting government surveillance are both too lenient and too weakly enforced.”