Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.
“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.
“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who with his wife owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Mr. Pickering’s mail but told him nothing else.
As the world focuses on the high-tech spying of the National Security Agency, the misplaced card offers a rare glimpse inside the seemingly low-tech but prevalent snooping of the United States Postal Service.
Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.
Together, the two programs show that postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail…
Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert and an author, said whether it was a postal worker taking down information or a computer taking images, the program was still an invasion of privacy.
“Basically they are doing the same thing as the other programs, collecting the information on the outside of your mail, the metadata, if you will, of names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations, which gives the government a pretty good map of your contacts, even if they aren’t reading the contents,” he said.
But law enforcement officials said blah, blah, blah. You already know what they will say.
The program has led to sporadic reports of abuse. In May 2012, Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor in Arizona, was awarded nearly $1 million by a federal judge after winning a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The sheriff, known for his immigration raids, had obtained mail covers from the Postal Service to track her mail. The judge called the investigation into Ms. Wilcox politically motivated because she had been a frequent critic of Mr. Arpaio’s, objecting to what she considered the targeting of Hispanics in his immigration sweeps…
Mr. Pickering said “I’m no terrorist — I’m an activist.” And I’m no terrorist — I’m an activist. First time I deliberately defied illegitimate laws was in 1960. I sat down at a drugstore counter with a Black friend of mine and we both ordered soft drinks. That brought the cops in from outside the store.
Less than 50 miles from the White House.
I’ve had my mail tracked for decades. Managed to get one postal employee busted out for exceeding the limits of authority. That never stopped anything. Frankly, I’d like to see the investigation widened. Do you think the Feds don’t make the same requirements of UPS or FedEx?