Yes, ‘Big Brother’ Is Monitoring Your Snail-Mail Too

Not many people write letters anymore. Many may have thought of returning to the old-school communication tactic when they learned of the NSA’s program that pulls private information from email and other online sources. But as we are learning, “snail mail” may not be any safer from the eyes of Big Brother.

According to the New York Times, the U.S. Postal Service has been monitoring some mail for over a century, and in recent years began photographing every single piece of mail that’s processed in the country—around 160 billion last year alone.

mailboxThere are two programs of mail surveillance. Mail covers is a system by which the mail carrier copies information from the front and back of envelopes and packages before delivering them to a certain person. That information is shared usually with a requesting law enforcement group or the feds on issues of national security. The other program, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, simply scans and photographs everything.

The latter system is a sort of better-safe-than-sorry approach. They are basically compiling a data source of all of our mail contacts—similar to what they are doing electronically.

“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” said Mark D. Rasche formerly of the Justice Department’s computer crimes unit in the fraud division. “Now it seems to be, ‘Let’s record everyone’s mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.’ Essentially you’ve added mail covers on millions of Americans.”

While officials can point to a few cases where the program has helped solve a crime, it hardly seems worth the intrusion. Interestingly, supporters of the system use the same sort of language that critics do, just looking at it from a different perspective.

“It’s a treasure trove of information,” said former F.B. I. agent James J. Wedick, who said he used mail covers in a number of investigations. “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.”

There are no indications how long the USPS keeps the information. We do know, however, that they cannot open your mail without a warrant, that is, unless they can justify it as an emergency or a foreign intelligence case, as former President George W. Bush affirmed in a 2007 statement.

If the police, feds, or mailman wants your information, it’s becoming increasingly clear that they can easily get it. More accurately—they likely already have it.

Taking DNA Samples When Arrested is Allowed by Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruled last week that police can swab arrestees for a DNA sample as a booking procedure. This means, you don’t have to be guilty of a crime in order for your genetic material to be taken and owned by the government. The (somewhat) good news is that not all states follow the same protocol when it comes to collecting DNA. [Read more…]

The FBI May Be Reading Your Emails

If the police want to go through your home, they need your consent or a warrant. The same is true if they want to sift through your mailbox. These are places where you have a certain expectation of privacy, where you do or have personal things that you may not want shared with everyone. The 4th Amendment protects you from unreasonable infringements on this privacy, by barring unreasonable searches and seizures. Interestingly, however, the FBI doesn’t seem to think this applies to them searching through your emails. [Read more…]

What Private Information Will Google Give Cops Without a Warrant?

Google surprised some folks this week when they announced their policy requires law enforcement to provide a probable cause warrant when seeking information contained in emails and documents on their cloud-storage system. Surprised because the law doesn’t require it and surprised because they simultaneously admitted that about 2/3 of the information they hand over is done so without a warrant. [Read more…]

Feds Don’t Want You Knowing Their Surveillance Policies

The Justice Department, which oversees the FBI and all other federal law enforcement arms, has memos that detail just how and when they can track citizens via GPS. But, they want to keep these memos to themselves. They have refused to release their views on GPS tracking to the public through requests by the ACLU. Instead, they forward copies of the memos with huge sections blacked out. Now, why would a governmental agency in a nation “for the people” be so compelled to keep quiet something that could possibly threaten the liberty in which the country was founded upon? [Read more…]

Court Affirms Your Right to Film Police in Illinois

The U.S. Supreme Court sent a message this week when they declined to hear an appeal overturning  an Illinois law that made it a felony to record police officers. The appeals  court decision against the law will stand, therefore your right to record police officers in Illinois is safe, for now.

Prosecutors in the state were hoping the Court would hear arguments over the controversial law, settling its legality once and for all. Instead, the Court’s decision not to hear it means they believe the Appeals Court ruling again the law should stand. [Read more…]

Police Mugshots are Big Business Online

There are many consequences to an arrest. In some towns, you get your mugshot in the paper or on a local news site. But a growing business is ensuring that your mugshot is permanently online in a searchable database—only to be removed after you pay a hefty fee. [Read more…]

The “Stingray”, Government’s New Tracking and Surveillance Tool

Have you ever heard of a “stingray”? No, not the kind that swims around in the ocean, but the kind that can be used by the government to track your every move, down to a few meters. If not, you aren’t alone. And the ACLU alleges there is a very good reason for this—that the government doesn’t want you to know about stingrays so they can continue using them with little oversight. [Read more…]

Unregulated Database of License Plate Photos Grows

There is a very good chance that at least one photograph of your license plate exists in a database somewhere. Whether it was taken by your local police department or a growing number of private agencies, it’s estimated that every vehicle own in this country has been hit by an automatic license plate recognition scanner, at least once. [Read more…]

Congress Criticizes Counter-terrorism Centers

Intelligence-gathering “fusion-centers” operated across the country and funded by the Department of Homeland Security are in for a rude awakening when a Congressional report is officially released next week. According to early reports, Congress says the centers often toe the line of citizen’s civil liberties and provide intelligence rarely related to terrorism. [Read more…]