Watchdog Finds Problems in Mail Surveillance Program

Inspector General Finds 'Insufficient Controls' Over Info Gathering Program

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Federal Watchdog Finds Problems in USPS Mail Surveillance Program. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A federal inspector general has found a lack of control in the U.S. Postal Service’s controversial mail cover program which allows police to gather information from crime suspects’ mail before it is delivered.

Background

Created as a response to the anthrax mailing attacks in 2001, the mail cover program is an investigative tool used to record the information appearing on the outside of letters and parcels.

The information is used by law enforcement agencies to protect national security; locate fugitives; obtain evidence; or help identify property, proceeds, or assets that can be seized under criminal law.

According to the Postal Service, “Postal Service and law enforcement officials must ensure compliance with privacy policies to protect the privacy of customers, employees, and other individuals’ information.”

Since the mail cover program involves reading only information on the outside of the envelope or package – like names and addresses – which could be read by anyone seeing the item, the courts have held that the program does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

In order to justify the need for a mail cover, police are required to provide information on what the subject is doing to violate the law and an explanation of how the mail cover could further the investigation or provide evidence of a crime.

But IG Finds Problems

In its latest audit of the mail cover program, the Postal Service Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that “Insufficient controls,” at the program’s management level “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.”

For example, the OIG found that mail cover requests from law enforcement agencies were not always handled in a timely manner. In addition, In the 196 mail cover requests reviewed by the auditors, 21% were approved without written authorization and 13% were granted despite not being either adequately justified or documented.

In total, the Postal Inspection Service reviewed, approved and processed about 49,000 mail cover requests during fiscal year 2013, while rejecting almost none according to the OIG’s audit.

Finally, the OIG found that the mail cover computer application failed to consistently provide accurate and reliable information because system controls did not ensure completeness, accuracy, and consistency of data.

For example, the OIG auditors found 928 cases in which mail cover information was still being collected months after the legally authorized collection period had ended.

In its previous mail cover reports, the Postal OIG had not released specific data on the program because the Postal Service had contended that the data would reveal “investigative techniques and related information which could compromise ongoing criminal investigations.”

However, as with other “anti-terrorism” programs created in the aftermath of the Sept.

11, 2001 attacks, we do not know and are not likely to ever know how many crimes have been prevented or criminals apprehended as a result of the mail cover program.

USPS management said in a memo responding to the initial review that it agreed with the findings and planned to tighten up its procedures for addressing the concerns, including restricting the approval of mail-cover requests.