Another new privacy bombshell came across the wires recently: not only is the U.S. government spying on your emails, they are also spying on the letters you send via the U.S. Postal Service.
Seriously? Yeah, seriously. And apparently they’ve been doing it for a while.
Tracking Your Letters: A History
The practice of tracking letters has actually been going on in the United States for nearly a hundred years. If law enforcement wanted to track the letters of a suspicious person, they could use something called the mail covers monitoring program. This program allowed law enforcement to record every piece of mail that a suspected person received.
The mail covers monitoring program tracks the names, addresses, return address and postmark locations for each piece of mail an individual sends, effectively mapping out a person’s contact information for the government.
Over 15,000 requests are received annually from law enforcement for mail covers, and monitoring can last between 30-120 days. The mail covers program has no oversight, and the Postal Service rarely denies a request.
The Mail Covers Monitoring Program After 9/11
But 9/11 changed everything. Before, the mail covers monitoring program was a manual process targeting only specific individuals. But in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the monitoring program was scaled up and automated.
The mail covers monitoring program was put on steroids, if you will.
Before, the mail covers program was a tool used by law enforcement to actively investigate those people suspected of committing a crime. Now, it’s used as a defensive tactic by the federal government to record every piece of mail sent by anyone.
This means recording all 160 billion pieces of mail we send to each other each year. The U.S. Postal Services takes a snapshot of every piece of mail on behalf of the government and then stores these images until if and when the government needs them.
And this has been going on for over a decade.
A VPN for Your Mail?
Maybe you think that what is printed on the front of a letter is public information. Indeed, courts have ruled that way. But should the government really be collecting information on every piece of mail we send? Does our expectation of privacy include the privacy to send mail to whomever we please without the government knowing?
While a VPN can help protect you from NSA snooping, unfortunately, there is no encryption that will protect your hand-written letters. It’s a good idea to remember to not write anything too revealing on the back of that postcard to your grandmother.