In an age of internet- and cell phone-related privacy concerns, it might come as a surprise to learn that the U.S. government still hangs on to a favorite pastime — spying on regular old snail mail.
According to a recent report, the U.S. government approved roughly 50,000 requests (last year alone) from law enforcement groups around the country as well as its own internal organizations to monitor the mail of American citizens as part of criminal and/or national security cases.
You can password protect your e-mail and social media accounts, but you can’t exactly put a lock on a letter that would prevent the government from knowing where it came from, where it’s going, or even what it says. The report, while shocking, raises legitimate privacy issues.
To be sure, there are understandable reasons for which the mail tracking programs are in place. Over the last 13+ years, the risk of deadly substances such as Anthrax and Ricin being sent through the regular mail system have increased dramatically and, as such, government agencies (including the U.S. Post Office) have been on high alert in an attempt to prevent harm to Americans.
But where do we draw the line between protecting American citizens and respecting their privacy? Americans should feel comfortable writing handwritten notes to their loved ones, friends and acquaintances without having to worry that some government agency, which for some reason might suspect them of having committed a crime or being involved in a crime, is going to be going through their private correspondences.
But only entirely legitimate requests to spy on mail are approved, right? Wrong. According to the unsettling report, many of the requests that were approved lacked proper written authorization or even adequate rationale backing up the request.
50,000 approved requests for mail tracking is a significant statistic, especially considering that if the government over the next few years becomes even more ready to approve requests, we might see that number skyrocket. One a request to track mail is approved, law enforcement agencies have the ability to trace its origin, destination and travel path.
But they can’t open the mail, right? Wrong. As our criminal defense lawyers know, after 9/11 (again, this is understandable), the government increased the capacity of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to breach privacy rules in what are deemed to be emergencies or foreign intelligence cases (the latter of which being a fairly vague description that can probably be applied to many cases).
As old-fashioned as the mail tracking program — known as “mail covers” — might seem, it’s steeped in secrecy and, therefore, it’s quite difficult to identify abuses in the system. Government officials could use the program to dig up dirt on their opponents; people in positions of power might use the program to spy on private citizens for personal gain. Because we the program is not transparent, there is really no way to know exactly what is going on. The only thing we do know is that the existence of the program, and the extent to which it is utilized, raises serious privacy concerns for all Americans.
To discuss this privacy and criminal defense issue with our experienced criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, please contact us for a free consultation by calling 1-888-5-DEFEND (1-888-533-3363). We look forward to assisting you.