US logs all mail

US Logs All Mail, ‘New York Times’ Compares Program To NSA Phone Snooping But…

COMMENTARY — The United States logs all mail for law enforcement, a practice called the Mail Isolation and Tracking Program which requires US Postal Service computers to photograph the exterior of all snail mail sent in the US — some 160 billion items in 2012.

In the wake of the NSA privacy violations alleged by fugitive leaker Edward Snowden, The New York Times published a piece by Ron Nixon explicitly comparing the program to the NSA’s program for tracking emails and phone calls.

The US mail logging program is not new. It was put into place after the 911 terror attacks, which were almost immediately followed up by the October 2001 anthrax attacks that ultimately killed five people.

The case, which killed two postal workers, went unsolved for years. It was finally closed in 2008, when suspect Bruce Ivins committed suicide ahead of a probable arrest for the crimes.

That seven-year fumbled case stands in stark contrast to two recent ricin attacks mailed to President Obama and others. The FBI was able to track down the suspects within weeks.

In the most recent case, actress Shannon Guess Richardson reportedly mailed the poison letters in an effort to frame her husband. But tracking information showed where and when the letters were sent — and quickly allowed the FBI to establish that he was at work when they were mailed.

So there’s no real question that the program is effective.

However, by comparing the system to the alleged NSA privacy violations, the New York Times seemed to suggest that the program goes too far.

For just one example, a poster on democraticunderground, a progressive discussion site, said angrily, “China, US, there’s no difference.”

And over 700 comments were posted at the time of writing to the NYT site itself as people exchanged their sometimes heated thoughts about the issue of the US logging all mail for law enforcement.

Apparently, all you have to do is say “NSA” and “privacy” and people turn off their brains.

I have to admit that I just can’t get exercised about this. Where is the privacy issue in photographing the exterior of the envelope, which is after all information that’s out there on public display?

Some number of people were outraged by the sheer cost of tracking the mail.

I’m going to suggest that the Postal Service must examine, scan, and track the exterior of my mail anyway, just to make sure that it gets where it’s supposed to go. I don’t doubt there’s some added cost to store and process the data, but I hardly think it’s pulling food out of the mouths of babies.

One of the odd things to me about the NYT piece is that it opens with an extended story about Leslie James Pickering, a former spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front. He’s now a bookstore owner in Buffalo, New York, and he wasn’t happy to find out that his snail mail has been singled out for special tracking.

The Postal Service confirmed that they were indeed tracking Pickering but wouldn’t say why. But, honestly, is it that hard to figure out?

The Earth Liberation Front set buildings on fire.

Am I supposed to be upset that somebody is keeping track of a guy who once fronted for arsonists?

And the privacy argument doesn’t really move me either any more. Nobody can post their whole life story on Facebook, providing their data for free so billionaires can sell them stuff, and then make me believe that they care about privacy.

It seems to me that people want it both ways. Most Americans have already given away their privacy to private companies…but they don’t want the government to use openly visible information to track potential bad guys.

How does that even make sense?

Feel free to comment, even if you think I’m wrong. Maybe I’ll learn something.

Right now, I’m just not all that clear about how tracking the outside of mail can be compared to NSA snooping. What are your thoughts on the program that asks the USPS to track all mail for law enforcement?

[US mailbox photo credit: Aranami via photopin cc]