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New Privacy Concerns About US Program That Can Track Snail Mail 66

Lashdots writes: A lawyers' group has called for greater oversight of a government program that gives state and federal law enforcement officials access to metadata from private communications for criminal investigations and national security purposes. But it's not digital: this warrantless surveillance is conducted on regular mail. "The mail cover has been in use, in some form, since the 1800s," Chief Postal Inspector Guy J. Cottrell told Congress in November. The program targets a range of criminal activity including fraud, pornography, and terrorism, but, he said, "today, the most common use of this tool is related to investigations to rid the mail of illegal drugs and illegal drug proceeds." Recent revelations that the U.S. Postal Service photographs the front and back of all mail sent through the U.S., ostensibly for sorting purposes, has, Fast Company reports, brought new scrutiny—and new legal responses—to this obscure program.
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New Privacy Concerns About US Program That Can Track Snail Mail

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    a range of criminal activity including fraud, pornography, and terrorism

    In general, pornography is legal throughout the US, no? Sure, you add certain adjectives and it becomes illegal pretty quick, but as written this list does not make sense.

    • by Nutria ( 679911 ) on Thursday April 23, 2015 @09:42AM (#49536821)

      In times past, sending porn through the mail *was* illegal, and the antiquated version of this program tracked porn mailers and receivers.

    • by RY ( 98479 )

      The USPS has a history of convictions of individuals spreading illegal thoughts and unpopular speech during the early portions of the 19th century.

      The Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918 helped convict people for horrendous crimes such as, association with the Communist Party, opposing conscription and unpopular speech.

      Early Communist, anarchist, socialist and others were convicted jailed and deported with much help from the USPS.

      Becoming an enemy of the state means a person is disliked

    • by fred911 ( 83970 )

      What about the children?

  • Oh no! The Federal agency that picks up, sorts, and delivers the mail keeps a record of having done so? God forbid!

    Color me profoundly unsurprised, with hints of "so what?".

  • by NotARealUser ( 4083383 ) on Thursday April 23, 2015 @09:20AM (#49536609)

    Searching for Drug trafficking just sounds like an excuse now days. Really? Can't they sniff the mail with modern drug detecting machines? Tracking meta data is almost guaranteed to be used for something different.

    I am tired of the boogie men of terrorism, drug trafficking, and safety that the U.S. three letter agencies keep using to justify attacking freedom and privacy.

    • by sudon't ( 580652 )

      Before Terrorism, the justification was Communism. After Terrorism, it'll be something else. As far as I can see, politics are cyclical, not progressive.
      The Drug War is an excuse - for many things, not least of which is making money. But make no mistake - it's driven by real moral disapproval. Same with Terrorism. Huge fortunes have been made since 2001, and whole industries have sprung up around the Terrorism scare. Don't look for it to go away anytime soon.

  • Is for the Supreme Court to find that information that can only be collected by the government under the mosaic theory of information and that could not be gathered by an individual actor is covered by a right of privacy, they manage to find all sorts of rights that we hadn't noticed before, it's time for them to find this one.

  • by Nutria ( 679911 ) on Thursday April 23, 2015 @09:25AM (#49536687)

    Well, it is for sorting purposes. (They've got massive machines running Linux doing OCR which replaced manual sorting, and that requires... taking pictures of the mail.)

    Whether all the pictures are also retained is a completely different story. 10 years ago, I'd have said, "No; too expensive." But storage costs have plummeted, so nowadays, maybe so.

    • Massive machines running LINUX? That is COMMUNISM!

      By the way, I think this story is under the wrong section. YRO means "Your Rights Online" and "snail mail" is not online. Can any of the admins move it to a more appropriate place, like, 'idle'.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      bah. ten years ago? they were already archiving the data in perpetuity long before that.

    • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Thursday April 23, 2015 @10:05AM (#49537071) Homepage Journal

      Well, it is for sorting purposes. (They've got massive machines running Linux doing OCR which replaced manual sorting, and that requires... taking pictures of the mail.)

      Right, but then the USPS was claiming that they simply threw away all of the resulting data when they were done with it. That's a ridiculous claim in every way.

      Whether all the pictures are also retained is a completely different story. 10 years ago, I'd have said, "No; too expensive." But storage costs have plummeted, so nowadays, maybe so.

      So what? They don't have to OCR anything that has a properly printed label; they just can it for bar codes. Those pieces of mail, which are the bulk of what passes through the postal system, never has to be photographed at all because they already know where it's coming from, where it's going, what it weighs and whether the package weight was reported accurately. The scans of the remaining minority of mail could quite reasonably be saved ten years ago, especially if you were not picky about resolution. Today, it's trivial.

      But the real "so what" is that they are OCRing the mail, so even if they were throwing away all of those scans, they would still reasonably be storing the metadata. Why would you ever throw that away, unless forced? It's small, and it's valuable. But moreover, one of the Snowden revelations was that they are in fact storing all of that OCR data, it all gets handed straight to the feds. Before Snowden, it was generally believed (heh heh) that this data was simply flushed, and only the fringe believed that it was handed to the feds as a matter of course. Now we know that to be the case.

      • by Nutria ( 679911 )

        But the real "so what" is that they are OCRing the mail,

        Lot's of people still actually hand-write addresses. It needs to get OCRed in order to be sorted.

        • But the real "so what" is that they are OCRing the mail

          Lot's of people still actually hand-write addresses. It needs to get OCRed in order to be sorted.

          You have to finish the sentence before you can understand it. I'd bet you just interrupt in the middle of sentences all the time, and thus fail to understand what people are telling you by preventing them from actually finishing a complete thought.

          If you go back and read the complete sentence, which expresses a complete thought, then it makes perfect sense.

      • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

        But the real "so what" is that they are OCRing the mail, so even if they were throwing away all of those scans, they would still reasonably be storing the metadata

        I would expect them to OCR the mail. in fact, the postal system has the best OCR in the business which can read printed/typed/stickered labels (even at an angle), and handwriting. The accuracy of the system is beyond what you can find - 99.99% accuracy means 1 in 10,000 letters has an error, and if you're dealing with millions of pieces of mail th

    • Whether all the pictures are also retained is a completely different story.

      They don't need to store the pictures. If the OCR is successful, they can just store the text, with is less than 1% of the image size.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Mail covers specify some single specific address or drop or person. That's your basic individualized warrant. Boring.
      The USPS also takes pictures of all mail sent through their system, from to scribbles date maildrop etc, and stores it all.
      They sell it in their name sanitized address dataset products. But you can see some unsanitized evidence of name matching in their own online address verifier, particularly regarding business names.
      They also give the entire raw dataset to the NSA and other Government agen

    • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

      Whether all the pictures are also retained is a completely different story. 10 years ago, I'd have said, "No; too expensive." But storage costs have plummeted, so nowadays, maybe so.

      They've been doing it for well over 10 years:

      cite:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08... [nytimes.com]

      Relevant quote:

      Last month, The New York Times reported on the practice, which is called the Mail Isolation and Tracking system. The program was created by the Postal Service after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 killed five people, including two postal workers.

  • so some people out there, who know perfectly well that non-govt owned property, like phone calls in the air, are being sniffed, actually trusts a govt. provided asset (i.e, USPS)? If it was up to me, I wouldn't communicate using mail. I'd use metadata enclosing the mail to communicate sensitive information (time sent, addressee, etc.)
  • The USPS has been using automated systems of sorting mail for decades. It's why mail across town goes to a consolidated center (perhaps halfway across the state) first for sorting into carrier routes and has been for decades.

    That Homeland Security want to capture this information - which has long been determined to accessible (the original pen-trace) isn't surprising at all.

    And they only have to photograph/image the ones that the machines can't read. It's only surprising to people who drink the conserva

    • The USPS has been using automated systems of sorting mail for decades. It's why mail across town goes to a consolidated center (perhaps halfway across the state) first for sorting into carrier routes and has been for decades.

      That Homeland Security want to capture this information - which has long been determined to accessible (the original pen-trace) isn't surprising at all.

      And they only have to photograph/image the ones that the machines can't read. It's only surprising to people who drink the conservative kool-aide that government can't do anything right.

      There are four things government is in a position to do better than anyone else: military defense, law enforcement, public works, and the erosion of liberty.

      • by swb ( 14022 )

        There are four things government is in a position to do better than anyone else: military defense, law enforcement, public works, and the erosion of liberty.

        I don't know, the experience with company towns makes me think big business can do erosion of liberty on par with the government and with greater efficiency.

      • by mydn ( 195771 )
        Get rid of government and see how long your liberty lasts.
        • Get rid of government and see how long your liberty lasts.

          Do you deny that liberty tends to erode over time? Or did a hallucination cause you to falsely believe I wanted to get rid of all government?

          br
          If neither of those is true, then I cannot understand what motivated you to write that post. It looks like a knee-jerk response to someone else's conversation.

  • put a GPS tracker - say an old model burner Android phone in box, make an address label out of one of these [youtube.com]and set it to change destinations to different parts of the country every four hours......

  • Big Data stupidity (Score:4, Interesting)

    by alispguru ( 72689 ) <baneNO@SPAMgst.com> on Thursday April 23, 2015 @10:33AM (#49537397) Journal

    A lot of our problems today are the result of people in power fundamentally misunderstanding what Big Data is good for.

    We used to assume it was impractical for the Government to keep records of everything we do in the public sphere. Those things have gone from possible to practical to inevitable, mostly due to Moore's Law.

    Just because you have everything recorded, doesn't mean it's useful, though. Technologists who should know better talk about searching these records to find the "needle in the haystack", selling the vision of complete records + powerful search tools = Total Awareness.

    What they conveniently skip over is:

    * All records have inaccuracies
    * If the inaccuracy rate is higher than the occurrence rate of what you're searching for, the search is not useful

    Consider medical screening tests. If you have a test with a false positive rate of 1 in 1000, it is useless to use such a test to search for a condition that happens to 1 in 1000000 - 999 times out of a thousand, the test will say you're sick when you're fine.

    Now, consider:

    * The error rate of address OCR

    versus

    * The rate of secrets being exchanged via US Mail

    Anyone in the Government who can't produce an estimate of those two numbers shouldn't be allowed anywhere near those records - it would be like giving a child a loaded gun, or a politician a Twitter account.

    • Those things have gone from possible to practical to inevitable, mostly due to Moore's Law.

      Actually, it is mostly due to Kryder's Law [wikipedia.org]. The driving force is not semiconductor density, but HDD density, driving down storage costs.

    • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

      Just because you have everything recorded, doesn't mean it's useful, though.

      While I agree with many of your points, often these records become important after the fact.

      Suppose I have a record of every letter sent from anywhere to anywhere. Then somebody blows up a building or whatever and are now known as a terrorist. The database allows you to obtain a list of every letter that had his address somewhere on it. Or any letter sent to a suspicious address which originated in his vicinity even if it didn't have a return address (such as if it were dropped in a mailbox). That kind

  • Did anyone else initially think that this official's title was actually, "Chief Postal Inspector Guy"?

  • The metadata collection of mail, or specifically knowing senders, receivers and dates of communication etc. has long been known as a law enforcement tool. The contents of private correspondence has been protected not only by the fourth amendment but also affirmed in 1878 ex parte Jackson: [justia.com]

    a distinction is to be made between different kinds of mail matter -- between what is intended to be kept free from inspection, such as letters, and sealed packages subject to letter postage, and what is open to inspection, such as newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and other printed matter purposely left in a condition to be examined. Letters and sealed packages of this kind in the mail are as fully guarded from examination and inspection, except as to their outward form and weight, as if they were retained by the parties forwarding them in their own domiciles. The constitutional guaranty of the right of the people to be secure in their papers against unreasonable searches and seizures extends to their papers, thus closed against inspection, wherever they may be. Whilst in the mail, they can only be opened and examined under like warrant, issued upon similar oath or affirmation, particularly describing the thing to be seized, as is required when papers are subjected to search in one's own household. No law of Congress can place in the hands of officials connected with the postal service any authority to invade the secrecy of letters and such sealed packages in the mail; and all regulations adopted as to mail matter of this kind must be in subordination to the great principle embodied in the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

    Of course based on reasonable suspicion law enforcement could always obtain warrants or with the help of postal inspectors focus in on one group or hierarchy of mail delivery to focus in on collecting this metadata. The

  • Protest the imaging of first class mail by placing your stamp upside down.

  • which device to create your own path to record the route the mail took... and potentially compare to the record this produces?

    lot of mail gone missing lately... just about ontopic...?

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