There’s been a lot of talk recently about the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata from emails and phone calls going in and out of the United States. However, one old-fashioned means of contact surveillance is still alive and well, and Edward Snowden had nothing to do with its reveal: mail covers.
Mail covers is the process of recording all of the information (or metadata) on the front of any piece of mail, which includes the destination and return addresses, the date on which the mail was sent and from where the mail originated. While opening the mail requires a warrant, tracking the metadata has proven to be a reliable way of assisting law enforcement, even in the digital era, with a major expansion with the Mail Isolation and Control Program.
Through the program, which was established following the 2001 anthrax attacks, the U.S. Postal Service computers photograph the front of every single piece of mail that goes through postal system. Last year, that was around 160 billion pieces.
“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” said Mark D. Rasch, the former director of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit, who worked on several fraud cases using mail covers, told The New York Times. “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.”
These covers have helped law enforcement agencies solve some rather high-profile crimes in recent years.
As The Times reported, “In 2007, the F.B.I., the Internal Revenue Service and the local police in Charlotte, N.C., used information gleaned from the mail cover program to arrest Sallie Wamsley-Saxon and her husband, Donald, charging both with running a prostitution ring that took in $3 million over six years. Prosecutors said it was one of the largest and most successful such operations in the country. Investigators also used mail covers to help track banking activity and other businesses the couple operated under different names.”
The program was also used to connect Shannon Guess Richardson to the ricin-tainted letters sent to President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.