Why the U.S. Postal Service Has Been Monitoring Your Mail For Years

Be careful what you send in the mail, because the U.S. Postal Service could be watching you. A revealing New York Times report sheds light on a little-known investigation tool that may be affecting more Americans than previously thought. Drawing information from a 2014 audit, the report states that in 2013 alone, the U.S. Postal Service approved nearly 50,000 requests to monitor Americans' mail at the request of law enforcement agencies and the USPS' own law enforcement arm, the Postal Inspection Service. Sounds like a violation right off the bat, right? In actuality, the investigation tool, called mail covers, has been used for decades, but it's far from being a perfect system.

The NYT story is based on an audit report posted to the website of the USPS' Office of Inspector General (OIG). The audit reveals that in the 2013 fiscal year alone, the USPS fulfilled 49,000 mail covers requests, which are justified when they can help provide evidence in a criminal investigation. However, the OIG found that the process often lacked efficiency or adequate controls to prevent violation or abuse of the system. Furthermore, many of the requests were approved even though the law enforcement agencies did not follow the OIG's required protocol.

The audit's figure of 49,000 requests is a significant jump from the 15,000 to 20,000 that officials had previously told the NYT about last year. So it's more widely used than we previously thought, but how do mail covers, which, according to the paper, are over a century old, work exactly?

What Is a Mail Cover?

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Mail covers is the name of an investigation tool used by the USPS in cooperation with law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and local police departments. Mail covers record information from the outside of letters and packages (names, return addresses, etc.) before they are delivered. That information is then sent back to the requesting agency.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, mail cover requests can only be made for primary or subject criminal investigations; they cannot be made for misdemeanor violations alone. Also, law enforcement agencies must obtain a search warrant if they intend to open the package and examine the contents.

What Is It Used For?

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The mail cover technique is used by law enforcement for a variety of criminal investigations. According to the audit, mail covers are used to "protect national security; locate fugitives; obtain evidence; or help identify property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under criminal law."

One example of how the mail cover tool can be highly effective is the case of Sallie Wamsley-Saxon and her husband, Donald, who were both charged for running a prostitution ring. Law enforcement officials said that they used mail covers to track their banking activity and other businesses that the couple were running under different names.

The System's Many Deficiencies

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Those success stories are, unfortunately, accompanied by many flaws in the system. In the audit report, the OIG found that postal office personnel did not always handle these mail cover requests in a timely manner — 928 mail covers were found to be in active status even though they had surpassed the allotted request period. Also, 21 percent of mail cover requests were approved without written authority, 13 percent were not adequately justified or failed to fully explain the reasonable grounds, and 15 percent of the inspectors did not have the proper nondisclosure form on file. So... perhaps you should be glad you're so attached to your email after all?

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