Less than an hour after a Denver-area news reporter discovered a suspicious looking surveillance camera outside a Golden, Colorado, post office, the device disappeared, apparently after being ripped from the ground.
KDVR News reporter, Chris Halsne, reported having found the camera recently but said it disappeared shortly after he asked officials about it.
Halsne said in a recent story the camera was first reported by a customer of the post office in November and it stayed in place until mid-January. The camera was reportedly positioned so that it could record license plate numbers and facial features of customers leaving the post office. Halsne’s report indicated the camera appeared to be tripped every time a vehicle left the property.
Postal employees inside the building told KDVR that they were not aware that customers were being photographed outside, but Halsne confirmed the camera was owned and operated by U.S. Postal Service’s law enforcement arm, the United State Postal Inspection Service, or USPIS.
A USPIS representative declined to give a specific reason for the camera’s placement and only admitted that the agency had a “number of cameras at their disposal.”
U.S. Postal Inspector Pamela Durkee said in an email to KDVR that the agency does not “engage in routine or random surveillance.”
“Cameras are deployed for law enforcement or security purposes, which may include the security of our facilities, the safety of our customers and employees, or for criminal investigations,” she wrote. “Employees of the Postal Inspection Service are sworn to uphold the United States Constitution, including protecting the privacy of the American public.”
But KDVR reported it was unable to find any city, county or federal search warrants related to the post office where the camera was found. The USPIS declined to say if the camera was collecting information for a specific case.
The camera and the secrecy is all very troubling for Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney, Lee Tien, who told KDVR that an increasing number of federal agencies are collecting personal information about citizens.
“Part of being a responsible, constitutional government is explaining why it is doing surveillance on its citizens,” Tien said.
“The government should not be collecting this kind of sensitive information,” he added. “It’s about your relationships, your associations with other people, which can be friendship or political or religious. The idea that we give up that privacy simply because we use the U.S. mail is, I think, a silly idea.”
It’s not the first time the U.S. Postal Service has drawn scrutiny from privacy advocates. In 2013, the Postal Service confirmed it was taking pictures of every letter and package mailed in the United States. The New York Times reported the practice was put in place after anthrax-laced letters killed five people in 2001.
The program, called the Mail Isolation and Tracking system, is an expanded version of an older system, often referred to as “mail covers,” according to The Times.
Under mail covers, information collected from the outside of parcels can be sent to law enforcement agencies without a warrant.