Join 3,561 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Mail Covers for everybody.
July 3, 2013 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Concerned about privacy and government surveillance? Not even snail-mail is safe: With Mail Isolation Control and Tracking, the US Postal Service is now photographing the exterior of every piece of paper mail in the United States, and storing the data indefinitely.
posted by anemone of the state (100 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
O'er the laaaaaand of the freeeeeeeeee
posted by entropicamericana at 10:49 AM on July 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


Just to be clear, for "now", the article actually says "since 2001" and for "indefinitely" the article actually says, "It is not known how long the government saves the images."
posted by muddgirl at 10:49 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


...which, in retrospect, is one definition of "indefinitely", but it's certainly the less common one.
posted by muddgirl at 10:50 AM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


They didn't cover this at the Postal Service museum!
posted by Going To Maine at 10:53 AM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Unless I missed it, the article doesn't mention how this is paid for. Given the postal service's financial woes recently I have to wonder if this is the most cost-effective use of their budget.
posted by TedW at 10:55 AM on July 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


The mail covers program, used to monitor Mr. Pickering, is more than a century old but is still considered a powerful tool.

So maybe a bit older than 2001.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:55 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


...which, in retrospect, is one definition of "indefinitely", but it's certainly the less common one.

"It is not known" may also mean any of the following

a) we didn't bother to ask
b) we couldn't figure out who to ask
c) we didn't understand the answer
d) we forgot

Given that it's the NYT, my guess is c.
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:56 AM on July 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


Since 2001? Aw damn they don't have copies of the dirty limericks I would write on the outside of letters to my then-boyfriend. I would've liked to seen those again.

My mail since 2001 has been incredibly boring, or stuff from the government itself, but this is still creepy guys, wtf.
posted by emjaybee at 10:56 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yes, the "since 2001" part should have been made clear. To be honest, the program's existence should have been made clear by the USPS in the first place.
posted by anemone of the state at 10:56 AM on July 3, 2013


This is almost funny. I'm trying to imagine how they are categorizing and organizing these in any way that retrieval will be anything other than needle, in haystack.
posted by mightshould at 10:57 AM on July 3, 2013


I knew I shouldn't have used the "Terrorist Rate" when sending my dad those DVDs.
posted by emjaybee at 10:58 AM on July 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


This just makes me feel like ordering monogrammed hammer and sickle notepaper with the Young Pioneers emblem in the corner.
posted by elizardbits at 10:58 AM on July 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


Do people really have an expectation that the *outside* of their mail is private?
posted by smidgen at 10:59 AM on July 3, 2013 [15 favorites]


Isn't there a lot of potential for blackmail here?

"Your policy on the Middle East is most intriguing, Representative Brown...I'm sure the public would be equally intrigued to know about your 2009 delivery from Giant Dildoz, Inc. ...Maybe we could come to some sort of agreement?"
posted by threeants at 11:00 AM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also relevant:

Court challenges to mail covers have generally failed because judges have ruled that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for information contained on the outside of a letter. Officials in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, in fact, have used the mail-cover court rulings to justify the N.S.A.’s surveillance programs, saying the electronic monitoring amounts to the same thing as a mail cover. Congress briefly conducted hearings on mail cover programs in 1976, but has not revisited the issue.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:00 AM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Do people really have an expectation that the *outside* of their mail is private?

No. I have the expectation that every piece of mail I've sent and received in my adult life isn't tracked in a vast database. I was expecting too much.
posted by banal evil at 11:01 AM on July 3, 2013 [46 favorites]


Do people really have an expectation that the *outside* of their mail is private?

Since I sort the mail for the apartments in my building, no. And that lack of privacy seems to have consequences for when some of your mail might arrive.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:02 AM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


Do people really have an expectation that the *outside* of their mail is private?


They may have an expectation that it's not tracked and catalouged to establish patterns after the fact.

I have to wonder why the hoofraw over the postal service, then. Why strip it down and try to run it out of business if it's so valuable in the Whar On Terrah?

Oh, right, to parcel it out to contractors.
posted by tilde at 11:03 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


This would be mind-boggling cool if it weren't so creepy. Imagine the Tumblr page for "Every Postcard Sent Since 9/11."
Oh, shit. I sent that bunch of weird postcards in contextual first-person monologues back in 2002? 2003?
posted by steef at 11:08 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Guys, this isn't a big deal. If you want privacy, just use email.

What?
posted by entropicamericana at 11:09 AM on July 3, 2013 [9 favorites]


Do people really have an expectation that the *outside* of their mail is private?

Do you have an expectation of privacy when you walk down the sidewalk? No?
Cool, then you won't mind me tracking every place you walk, all the time.
posted by mstokes650 at 11:11 AM on July 3, 2013 [42 favorites]


I knew those vanity BDSM postcards I ordered were a bad idea, but my mistress told me they were mandatory. Boy am I redfaced.
posted by Samizdata at 11:11 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


So maybe a bit older than 2001.

The "mail cover" program apparantly only targeted specific people - Post Office gets directive "copy envelopes of all mail to this person at this address." The program starting in 2001 copies every piece of mail sent, apparantly, which is the kind of expansion that causes a lot of concern.
posted by muddgirl at 11:11 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sorry, I can't be too serious about this. Overloading.

And, alack and alas, boy howdy, the terrorists won and keep winning.

And winning.

And winning.
posted by Samizdata at 11:13 AM on July 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


Sorry, I can't be too serious about this. Overloading.

posted by Samizdata at 11:13 AM on July 3 [+] [!]


eponysadface
posted by sparklemotion at 11:14 AM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


How revealing is metadata?

The described MIT project might be worth an FPP if their site weren't currently slammed.
posted by stopgap at 11:17 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mail proxies in a foreign country?

Think of it like NAT for physical mail. Everything goes to a single address, and exits that address. The "state" table of who's mail is intended for specifically where is masked.

The question is, which country would host this?
posted by Annika Cicada at 11:18 AM on July 3, 2013


I'm seeing another helpful byproduct of this: assuming they scan the mail before things are delivered, couldn't I file a FOIL request and have images of all my mail so I can show them how many things weren't delivered, how badly some of my mail has been mangled, and find out whether that box of cookies my Mom sent me 10 years ago was squashed during delivery or before and then sue for fresh cookies!
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 11:19 AM on July 3, 2013 [6 favorites]


It only took an extra quarter century or so for the era of Big Brother to arrive. We are certainly being watched now, in all we do. I have very little confidence that we are far from the day when the content of email, snail mail, and phone calls is up for grabs too.

As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858 in one of his lesser known speeches:

What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.
posted by bearwife at 11:21 AM on July 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


This is why I never address my letter before sending them.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:21 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hey, the Constitution says you are secure in your papers, but says nothing about your metapapers, so obviously those are fair game. Silly citizens.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:22 AM on July 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


> Given the postal service's financial woes recently I have to wonder if this is the most cost-effective use of their budget.

The automatic routing this enables saves them tons of money that used to be spent on people doing it manually. It was a cost- and time-saving measure, originally, whether or not it's used for surveillance at this point.
posted by gilrain at 11:22 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


The "mail cover" program apparantly only targeted specific people - Post Office gets directive "copy envelopes of all mail to this person at this address." The program starting in 2001 copies every piece of mail sent, apparantly, which is the kind of expansion that causes a lot of concern.

That's true. You have caught me excerpting what seemed like a relevant quote before finishing the article. My bad. However, I do wonder at the level of "specific address" involved. When David Simon described police practices for tapping phone registries in Baltimore, he mentioned how the cops are allowed to pull all the metadata from calls off a cell tower without a second thought. By that same token, if I want "specific addresses" could I have just asked for every single address in the projects?
posted by Going To Maine at 11:23 AM on July 3, 2013


I'm not defending the mail covers program. But there is, generally a continuum from "universally agreed allowable use of surveillance for police matters" and "unreasonable search and seizure." Collecting information as part of an ongoing investigation - said investigation hopefully having a limited scope and an end date - is different from tracking and storing all mail in the eventuality that it will be wanted.
posted by muddgirl at 11:28 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


So which database contractor got rich off this idea?

I almost wonder if one useful way to fight for privacy is to start shining a big spotlight on where money is spent on gadgets for homeland security, as well as fight for laws where legislators must be able to account for every dime spent on the apparatus, and which lobbyists are associated with said apparatus and legislator, or get subject to immediate impeachment and removal from office.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:29 AM on July 3, 2013 [8 favorites]


We are certainly being watched now, in all we do.

"In all we do"? I seriously doubt the government has been watching me clean up cat vomit.
posted by aught at 11:29 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


this must be fascism written in Comic Sans
posted by infini at 11:30 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I almost wonder if one useful way to fight for privacy is to start shining a big spotlight on where money is spent on gadgets for homeland security,

HA HA HA. Right. And be perceived as soft on terror? And imagine if a terror attack occurred after reducing or eliminating the money spent on those gadgets?

We're screwed, blued, and tattooed. It's not going to get better until after it gets a whole lot worse.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:32 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Just thinking of future job prospects....

"Hi, I'm Samizdata, and I'll be your personal surveillance monitor for the rest of your life. If I can do anything to make your monitoring better, please let me know so I can log your displeasure."
posted by Samizdata at 11:32 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just to clear this up for myself and everybody:
* If you are talking about 'mail covers' you are talking about a program that has existed for a long time that allows for the recording of the covers of envelopers for up to 120 days
* If you are talking about Mail Isolation Control and Tracking / MICAT / MICaT (my cat! What's he been doing?!) you are discussing the secret, recently revealed program that has existed since 2001 and seems to be about much more extensive databasing of many, many peoples' mail covers for unknown amounts of time.

Muddgirl: the mail covers program seems pretty legit. The new one requires some debate and possibly some outrage. That unknown amount of time for which the data are retained is a pretty big question.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:35 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, that is what I said.
posted by muddgirl at 11:37 AM on July 3, 2013


this must be fascism written in Comic Sans

Friendly fascism.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:38 AM on July 3, 2013


Given the postal service's financial woes recently I have to wonder if this is the most cost-effective use of their budget.

My first thought is that the NSA or FBI might be providing money for this program and equipment upgrades, thereby easing some of the USPS's financial problems, added incentive to go along with it.
posted by aught at 11:40 AM on July 3, 2013


Hi, I'm Samizdata, and I'll be your personal surveillance monitor for the rest of your life.

I remember that Philip K Dick short story well!
posted by aught at 11:41 AM on July 3, 2013


Sometimes I have to repeat things to know what I think.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:42 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


2001 you say....I knew this thing was tied into the Toynbee Tiles....hmmmm...look's like its time to watch this yet again.
posted by snap_dragon at 11:52 AM on July 3, 2013


"In all we do"? I seriously doubt the government has been watching me clean up cat vomit.

The government would like you to switch out your cat food. They're getting tired of looking at that particular shade of vomit.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:52 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, the government is concerned about your posture when you bend over to clean up the cat vomit, and have you considered a different brand of paper towel?
posted by mogget at 11:55 AM on July 3, 2013 [5 favorites]


I once sent a rather risque postcard while in a long-distance relationship. The card took an extra two weeks to arrive and had a thumbtack hole in the upper edge when it did. I suspect it was adorning someone's bulletin board for the "missing time."
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:02 PM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love the government. They're so concerned about me and my cat. And my mail!
posted by aught at 12:03 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's been some years since a postal employee described it to me, but she said the automation involved displaying a photo of the envelope to a human at a computer, who acted as a human OCR and keyed in the zip code. That is, they photographed every hand-addressed envelope. So far this just looks like they're talking about investigators being granted access to information stored as a side effect of mail processing.

I think it's worth talking about how long they're storing it, privacy expectations, and whether access should require a warrant, but that the photos ever existed isn't of itself sinister.
posted by Zed at 12:05 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


mogget: "Also, the government is concerned about your posture when you bend over to clean up the cat vomit, and have you considered a different brand of paper towel?"

In addition, the government would prefer a snugger shorter skirt and a straight-legged posture while bending over so as to provide better surveillance opportunities, as terrorists can attack at any time and from anywhere. This is for your safety.
posted by Samizdata at 12:05 PM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


With Mail Isolation Control and Tracking, the US Postal Service is now photographing the exterior of every piece of paper mail in the United States, and storing the data indefinitely.

Yep. You know how you can take seemingly unlimited photos and keep them forever, just because you have the space? The government is thinking the same thing.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:09 PM on July 3, 2013


Do you have an expectation of privacy when you walk down the sidewalk? No?
Cool, then you won't mind me tracking every place you walk, all the time.


I get your point, but I think the analogy is flawed because you made it personal. I would mind more if you in particular did it, because you're some random crazy guy on the internet. Perhaps the better analogy are government CCTV cameras. Everywhere. Creepy.

Given how quickly they process mail and how they track down mail bombs and anthrax, etc, I sort of figured they were doing this kind of national mail history file a lot earlier than 2001. I've always felt the surveillance state was inevitable in any highly technological society involving humans -- but maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised someday.
posted by smidgen at 12:09 PM on July 3, 2013


In addition, the government would prefer a snugger shorter skirt

The government really doesn't want to see me in a skirt, take my word for that. Relatedly, I can probably fight intrusive surveillance just by wearing gym shorts and no shirt around the house more.

In all seriousness, I rarely get anything but marketing crap in the mail anymore. It hardly seems like it would be worth whoever's time and effort to track most of our junk mail.
posted by aught at 12:11 PM on July 3, 2013


This is for your safety.

And your cat's safety. Also, have you thought of making more cat lols? And emailing and posting them to people whom the government may or may not also be interested in? We're kind of bored here.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:12 PM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yep. You know how you can take seemingly unlimited photos and keep them forever, just because you have the space? The government is thinking the same thing.

Can we relax a little knowing the drive will eventually crash, and the government will have been as lazy as we are about backing up their image folders?
posted by aught at 12:13 PM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


In addition, the government would prefer a snugger shorter skirt

Can I get tax credits for this?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:13 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


More relevantly: has anyone ever done an estimate of how much maintaining this level of surveillance of mail, email, and phone calls costs? Can any state actually afford to do this long-term on the scale the US is, especially one that's not really all that keen on taxes?
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:14 PM on July 3, 2013


As for which contractor benefits, my bet would be Pitney-Bowes, as they make a lot of the mail sorting & metering equipment. One of the uses they make of the images is the image of those envelopes that cannot be machine scanned are passed in front of a human operator, who attempts to hand-jam the intended addressee, which allows the mail to be barcoded and presorted. This (the presort houses) is big business. They're middlemen that gets charged less by USPS for tidy mail that's already zip-code sorted. Part of that savings they pass on to their customers, and the remainder is their cut.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:15 PM on July 3, 2013


Can any state actually afford to do this long-term on the scale the US is, especially one that's not really all that keen on taxes?

No problem, they can outsource it to the lowest bidder.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:15 PM on July 3, 2013


No problem, they can outsource it to the lowest bidder.

I get the feeling that the NSA et al aren't really cheap in that way - most of their contracting companies seem to be raking it in.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:17 PM on July 3, 2013


There is no piece of information that intersects government and private enterprise that is not captured and capitalized on in one form or another.
posted by iamabot at 12:23 PM on July 3, 2013


Forever I've heard the old canard 'sending unencrypted emails is like using a postcard'. Given recent revelations, this seems particularly relevant.
posted by el io at 12:25 PM on July 3, 2013


Which is why my new service sending messages by pigeon is going to be so popular. The NSA may read your post but they stand a 50% chance of being pooped on!
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:25 PM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


From my short time with a branch of the federal government, there's nothing like hiring out a contractor to do a job your agency could do if it spent half that money on hiring more (and more skilled) people. Contracts are awarded to the lowest reasonable bidder, but that's still not a small cost. Heck, we only recently realized we should be enforcing a maximum "overhead costs" percentage to contracts.

For example of NSA contracted jobs, here's a new $1.2 BILLION complex at a National Guard base 26 miles south of Salt Lake City features 1.5 million square feet of top secret space. I don't think there's an internal crew to design and build this, so it's all contracted out to other companies. And the annual upkeep of this facility is around $20 million a year, which might include more contractors to manage elements of the facilities.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:25 PM on July 3, 2013


And your cat's safety. Also, have you thought of making more cat lols? And emailing and posting them to people whom the government may or may not also be interested in? We're kind of bored here.

relevant xkcd
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:31 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It expands the mail hacks idea:
* Need to contact the government? Mail them and put your message on the front of the envelope.
* If they are using OCR, can we put XSS attacks on the envelopes?
* Think of the anarchy created by mailing yourself something with your address as the return address too. Infinite loop!
* Would security paper that screws up flash based images trip the system up?
* How would it handle an envelope with the addresses covered in a privacy filter?
posted by jwells at 12:46 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


If the government is going to be watching my every move, the least they could do is freaking help me out a little bit.

*Booming VOG coming from the secret Just In Case GPS tracker in my car* MUDDGIRL! HEAVY TRAFFIC ON I-35! TAKE THE BYPASS!

Picking up my mail, I see scrawled across an innocent-looking letter from the Mortgage Clearing House: *PRETTY SURE THIS IS A SCAM!*
posted by muddgirl at 12:54 PM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


This story reminds me also of the way local police increasingly capture license plate information. The exterior of an envelope is not private. A license plate on a car on a public street is not private. But a local police database of when and where cars come and go? An unregulated FBI database of what mail someone receives from whom and when? Those become privacy concerns.

Our society does not have the tools to think about privacy in the age of databases. Facts that seem non-private in isolation become privacy issues when aggregated. No one understands this well, much less how to deal with it. (See also: reverse phone directories, web ad tracking, the NSA, Facebook, Google, ...)
posted by Nelson at 12:59 PM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]


Full Hacker News Comment Thread

There's some hearsay comment that speaks to the system:
About seven years ago, I was at a sushi bar and struck up a conversation with an older gentleman sitting next to me. He told me he was a developer and created systems for USPS. I am always fascinated by the technology used in large scale systems so I picked his brain for a good hour.

From what I recall, he said at the key distribution centers, USPS scans every single mail (in standard envelop sizes) and in under a second, runs OCR for the destination address. Results from OCR are matched to the address database and if the match is significant, the mail is automatically diverted to the correct queue. Now here's the fun part - if OCR fails or print/handwriting is unreadable, a photograph is immediately sent to one of the hundreds of humans waiting to decipher the address and type it in (think Amazon Mechanical Turk). The humans have under 10 seconds to read, decipher, type, and submit the correct address. During this time, the letter is held up in a waiting buffer and the moment the correct address is available, it is diverted to the correct queue.

I asked him if that means USPS took a photo of every single piece of mail and he said yes, they had to, otherwise nobody would ever get any mail due to the sheer volume of mail they had to manage. I asked if the photos of envelopes were saved forever and he said, well, I'm pretty sure they are but I'm not allowed to publicly admit that.

I know it's a personal anecdote but that was seven years ago. I can't even imagine what they're doing now.
posted by wcfields at 1:08 PM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


the man of twists and turns: "And your cat's safety. Also, have you thought of making more cat lols? And emailing and posting them to people whom the government may or may not also be interested in? We're kind of bored here.

relevant xkcd
"

Address all your mail to Little Bobby Tables.
posted by wcfields at 1:10 PM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


The postal inspectors have always been around for enforcement. The Feds would use a charge of mail fraud much more frequently in the Pre-Fed-Ex days. They did not morph into the Maytag Repair Person (ho hum, nothing to do) when technology made investigation easier. They worked with the Unabomber and anthrax mailings...
posted by childofTethys at 1:14 PM on July 3, 2013


Perhaps it's time for mail VPNs (VPPOs? VTristero?) Write your letter/risqué postcard and put it in an envelope (of a special metallic paper, in case the NSA X-ray letters), with your VTristero account details. It goes to the local W.A.S.T.E. hub, is removed from its envelope, put into a random batch, which is sent to a random W.A.S.T.E. peer, whence each item from the batch is mailed individually, or, for premium customers, hand-delivered.
posted by acb at 1:22 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


So why the fuck is it that the post office can manage to photograph every piece of mail I send, but can't manage to deliver every piece of mail I send?
posted by MoonOrb at 1:26 PM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


wcfields: that, in fact, is in the postal service museum. I can't find the video right now, but here is a relevant part of the museum's website on OCR's use by USPS.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:27 PM on July 3, 2013


Am I going to have to start paying Income Tax on the wealth I have obtained from Pizza Hut 2 for 1 deals? What about the free dipping sauce? Where do I declare this?
posted by srboisvert at 1:41 PM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Given the postal service's financial woes recently I have to wonder if this is the most cost-effective use of their budget.

That's your objection to this? That it's not monetized? Don't give them ideas, man.
posted by forgetful snow at 2:32 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


We should outsource this to the private sector. FedEx and UPS do a much more efficient job of tracking my every move.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:48 PM on July 3, 2013


FedEx and UPS do a much more efficient job of tracking my every move.

I disagree. They constantly tell me I wasn't home when I was.
posted by srboisvert at 2:56 PM on July 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


C'mon, they checked almost every room.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:00 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another thing that strikes me about this and other recent revelations: the gap between previous revelations and their consequences for the leakers is emboldening other leakers. They're really going to have to crucify Manning and/or Snowden, and do so in a way that is both very public and spectacular, to serve as a grim example of what happens to those who talk about the master's secrets.
posted by acb at 3:37 PM on July 3, 2013


smidgen: "Do people really have an expectation that the *outside* of their mail is private?"

No, but the problem isn't at an individual level. The problem is that this is being stored indefinitely and analysis being run to infer things about large numbers of people. That most of them aren't going to be headed to Guantanamo or have criminal charges brought doesn't mean a lot. It's simply not OK for our government to spy on us without (reasonable) cause.

There are a lot of nominally public things that we don't expect to be collected in a vast dragnet and analyzed en masse to allow the security agencies to pull aside the curtain and peek into people's private lives. Not much different than using an IR camera on your house, IMO, at least when it's done on a wide scale.

I'd have less of a problem with them monitoring the exterior of specific persons' mail, even if the justifications were relatively flimsy, because there's much less room for abuse when the data set is small.
posted by wierdo at 3:59 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


WORKLOG 07032013
MONITOR: SAMIZDATA 6546583254654SAMIZDATA

START
Monitored chat between HoneyStacked and 14inDong4U

Sent email to 14inDong4U that he would have to report to his nearest Federal proctor for physical examination as lying about his physical appearance could be considered highly questionable behaviour based on identity concealment which is a watchword for terrorist pre-crime.

After 14inDong logged off, started mandatory chat intercept with HoneyStacked and advertised her of need for physical examination of how "stacked" she is as per 14inDong.

Also advised her she needed to get rid of her opaque shower curtain as per the WLTCUWANA of 2013. Also, advised she needs to abandon her obsolete toilet and get a Transparisteel FreedomCrapper as a terrorist can attack from anywhere and at any time.

Finally, advised that her package from MAXIDICKS LLC containing a SuperJumbo "That Goes Where?" model would have to be demonstrated via webcam session to prove it is not a device that could be used as an IED. Scheduled time for webcam session on Saturday 07062013 at 2000 hours. Have applied for compensated telecommuting as this is outside my normal office hours.

END
posted by Samizdata at 4:29 PM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why don't you just put the whole world in a bottle, Superman?
posted by Smedleyman at 5:09 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


If I could save man in a bottle
The first thing that I'd like to do
Is to cork every Tom,
Dick, and Harry all bottled away
Just to watch all of you
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:28 PM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I seriously doubt the government has been watching me clean up cat vomit

ALL. CATS. ARE. TERRERIORSTS!
posted by BlueHorse at 5:33 PM on July 3, 2013


I solve this problem by simply not putting addresses on my letters.u figure if the government is so smart, they can figure out where my mail should go.
posted by happyroach at 6:09 PM on July 3, 2013


I solve this problem by simply not putting addresses on my letters.

heh - but, you know, one way to seriously cripple this program would be to not write out the return address - so the feds can tell that something is being mailed to a specific address, but doesn't know who it's from
posted by pyramid termite at 7:07 PM on July 3, 2013


somehow, it was weirdo's comment above that, after following privacy concerns for the past couple weeks, made me finally 'get it'. do we really need this? should we just shake our heads, think, "I'm not a terrorist, and besides, if I was, I would certainly be able to outsmart fucking postal inspectors (no offence postal inspectors)", and go on with our lives, just accept that this is the new normal. "well the technology is there, so of course the massive databases are going to happen'. blah blah slippery slope, but really: yes, slippery slope. How much of this survelliance stuff was spun out of the Patriot Act? It feels right, yes, just right, better, it feels right to say, you know what, as a society, we'll pass on the massive databases of metadata and aggregate info. you know, just no thanks. It feels better that way. I like this feeling.
posted by notesondismantling at 9:03 PM on July 3, 2013


Man, archeologists in the distant future are going to think we are really fucking weird.
posted by desuetude at 9:21 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a roll of this shipping tape somewhere in the bottom of my desk. I think I'll be using it a lot more now.
posted by decathecting at 9:50 PM on July 3, 2013


Man, archeologists in the distant future are going to think we are really fucking weird.

You don't have to wait that long... just check out the sniggering in 'other side of the world' timelines
posted by infini at 10:15 PM on July 3, 2013


1) I'm not the only person to still use the post office for more then just ordering things from online?

2) I wonder if Canada does the same thing, or if we are on too much of a budget?

3) Huh, I wonder if I wrote anything I shouldn't have on any of the postcards I've sent? Probably not, they are postcards. That said, I can be something of a flirt at times....

4) Heh, they are going to be amused by the envelopes my ex let her kids decorate with crayon before sending me.

5) Now, if you use bright lights and software to scan the inside of the envelope without opening it, does it still count as a mail cover examination? (Ok, this was actually first, but I forgot while writing my reply)
posted by Canageek at 10:40 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


LAPD is vacuuming down license plates and putting then into a huge database, so and so was here when, and just storing it. The license plate is obviously specifically intended to be visible and public. The outside of an envelope is also public.

And yet there's nothing different about the location database? Or a database of who has communicated with who via the mail?

It's the difference between being seen and being followed.

We have the technological ability now to have a virtual Officer Friendly shadow every American's every step. God save us.
posted by Wood at 8:22 AM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would be curious to know what the supreme court would say about that LA database, given that in 2012 they were unanimous in saying that putting a GPS on a car requires a warrant. They might well say it's fine, but I'd be curious. Anyone here a lawyer?
posted by Going To Maine at 1:19 PM on July 4, 2013


muddgirl: ...which, in retrospect, is one definition of "indefinitely", but it's certainly the less common one.
... which means your complaint about their use of the word is completely meaningless, unless you're one of those bizarrely misinformed people that think the numbering of definitions in your particular dictionary of choice indicates some moral value about that definition's usage.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:50 AM on July 6, 2013


aught: We are certainly being watched now, in all we do.

"In all we do"? I seriously doubt the government has been watching me clean up cat vomit.

You missed a spot.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:15 AM on July 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Judging by what was in my mailbox yesterday, the gummint is seriously wasting their time.

Except for that letter from the Mormons, they may not be terrorists, but they sure are irritating.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:58 PM on July 6, 2013


Alfred W. McCoy: Surveillance Blowback - "The making of the U.S. surveillance state, 1898-2020."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:01 PM on July 16, 2013


« Older In the heart of Puisaye, in Yonne, Burgundy, a tea...  |  Madiha Tahir, a journalist and... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments