US Records Snail Mail “Metadata”

According to a story in today’s New York Times, the US Postal Service has a program to photographed the exterior of every single piece of mail they processed — something like 160 billion pieces a year — and provides that data to “law enforcement” upon request. So if you were thinking to evade Prism by brushing up on your letter writing skills . . . return to sender.

The “Mail Isolation Control and Tracking” program simply provides the information available on “covers” without the necessity of recourse to a judge. The article notes that challenges to this practice have failed on the basis that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to the information exposed on the outside of envelopes or other mail wrapping. This, of course, is a different matter from a practice of routinely obtaining this information in a widespread fashion or “later use” or for big data analysis.


  1. It’s interesting, perhaps, that about all of the comments on the NYT article that are ‘NYT picks’ are comfortable with the spying, and all the comments that are ‘readers’ picks’ hate it. A journalistic attempt at balance, or compliance with the police state on the part of the newspaper?

  2. David Collier-Brown

    I may not have an expectation of privacy for a single envelope’s information, but, to quote a U.S. commentator, Jane Q. Public, “systematic collection of public information can legally (not to mention morally) constitute surveillance and an invasion of privacy. Have you ever heard of stalkers? I’ve had people stalk me. Why would you give the government a pass or stalking when you wouldn’t tolerate it from anyone else?”

  3. David Collier-Brown

    Just to emphasize a particular point: This “harmless metadata” is who you are, where you are, when, who your friends are, where they are, who their friends are and so on. In fact, it’s everything about you except what you said to Aunt Martha in the letter.

    To be fair, it is wonderful for tracking spies. If you start with one known spy, it helps find others. See Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere”, written from the point of view of the British.

    It’s less useful for identifying spies (or bombers) from a cloud of data, because if you start with Aaron Swartz, you do get a list of supposedly suspicious people to investigate. Unfortunately for them, they’re actually innocent bystanders. Only after a bomber has blown up can you use metadata analysis to find his (ex-)friends.