Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Wait a Minute Mr. Postman

 So the New York Times has the big scoop that the U.S. Postal Service manually monitors our mail as well as computer-scanning every piece of it for Homeland Security posterity. What a shock. Half my mail seems to arrive mysteriously unsealed these days. Either the senders ran out of spit, or the gremlins have been at work again. Just yesterday, a thank-you letter from Doctors Without Borders arrived already ripped open. (I don't know if it had gotten mangled en route through Chris Christie's Port Authority, or was simply delayed in a postal containment tent set up for monitoring Ebola charities -- but I'll try to find out for you.)

According to the Times, the Postal Service admits having honored more than 50,000 mail-monitoring requests from various police agencies, There has been little oversight and accountability on the spying campaign, nor has its efficiency or lack thereof ever been measured.
The surveillance program, officially called mail covers, is more than a century old, but is still considered a powerful investigative tool. At the request of state or federal law enforcement agencies or the Postal Inspection Service, postal workers record names, return addresses and any other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered to a person’s home.
Law enforcement officials say this deceptively old-fashioned method of collecting data provides a wealth of information about the businesses and associates of their targets, and can lead to bank and property records and even accomplices. (Opening the mail requires a warrant.)
Who are they kidding? Warrants are so yesterday, as old-fashioned as the century-old surveillance program itself.

 But anyway -- I have long suspected/known that the post office had gone over to the Dark Side... or at the very least, harbored Dark Side aspirations.

It all started with a strange phone call I received one dark December night in 2010. When the caller identified himself as the chief assistant counsel for the Postal Regulatory Commission, my heart skipped a beat. Had I neglected to put extra stamps on that thick letter I'd just sent out?  Had they finally tracked down the culprit who'd put the chewing gum wrappers and pennies and other detritus into the prepaid credit application envelope from the annoying Capitol One scammers?

I Should Be So Lucky

  No, it was actually far more horrifyingly banal than that. My caller (who only rang the once) said he knew of me through my New York Times reader comments, and was just alerting me to an op-ed he'd written for the paper in hopes I'd give it a thumbs-up review. His nifty idea was to make the financially-strapped Postal Service more viable by having mail trucks double as spies for other government agencies. (cue the James Bond music.)

I obviously assumed it was a prank call.  But after hanging up, I checked the Times Sunday review page. And there it was:  The Postman Always Pings Twice (cue the Nightmare On Elm Street music) --
The service’s thousands of delivery vehicles have only one purpose now: to transport mail. But what if they were fitted with sensors to collect and transmit information about weather or air pollutants? The trucks would go from being bulky tools of industrial-age communication to being on the cutting edge of 21st-century information-gathering and forecasting.
After all, the delivery fleet already goes to almost every home and business in America nearly every day, and it travels fixed routes along a majority of the country’s roads to get there. Data collection wouldn’t require much additional staff or resources; all it would take would be a small, cheap and unobtrusive sensor package mounted on each truck. (This idea is mine alone, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Postal Regulatory Commission.)
Well, thank God for that. Also thank God there was no option for reader comments.  Then again, this guy had my number. I began to shiver as I read further:
True, other types of vehicles, like taxis or buses, could also carry sensors. But such vehicles typically don’t follow as many regular routes. Nor are they managed by a single organization that could readily coordinate nationwide or regional data collection.
There are a few obvious objections. For starters, there are privacy concerns regarding certain types of data. But a review panel could be set up to monitor the use of the network and ensure safeguards for handling the data.
Mind you, this was long before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the Panopticon State. Back in the good old innocent days of 2010, most people were blissfully unaware that their privacy had gone by the wayside decades ago. The worst thing that had happened was that the Bush administration was caught harassing librarians over what books we were subversively reading.  This was before the seemingly daily revelations of privacy abuses, greeted with a politician or a bureaucrat blithely insisting that such assaults on civil rights were not done "willingly", or if they were, they could be handled by "review panels." Soothing cross-agency checks and balances are there to ensure that any abuses can be safeguarded against public outcry. But my Mr. Postman already knew this years ago.
There’s also the question about marketplace competition from a federal agency monopoly, an issue that has led Congress to limit the types of non-postal services the agency is allowed to provide. But in this case, the service wouldn’t be competing; rather, it would be providing a platform that a business could never afford. If anything, by offering access to a wide range of data and thereby being a catalyst for business innovation, the service would be promoting competition, not hindering it.
Who is Mr. Postman kidding? There is no separation of government and corporations. Ed Snowden worked for private contractor Booz Allen, not the NSA. The Department of Homeland Security has an office high in the government-subsidized Goldman Sachs tower, and shared its intelligence on Occupy protesters directly with Wall Street. In an oligarchy, the moneyed interests always call the shots. Fool me once, ping me twice, the excuses are getting stale. The proles are beyond wise to the fact that we live in a crypto-fascist world.

Incidentally, the reason that I am not including the name of my postal ringer within this post is so that the next time he Googles his own name, my article won't instantly pop up in the search results, and the Postman will be less likely to ring/ping me twice. But if he does, I'll be sure to ask him about that New Jersey-Chris Christie connection to the tampering of my letter from Doctors Without Borders. 


Oh, and totally off-topic, but since other bloggers brag about their adorable pets, I thought I'd share this latest snap of my dog Snap in one of his good moods:


Jay - Ottawa said...

With that nice doggie in the front yard, it’s a wonder you still have home delivery.

annenigma said...

Such a cute puppy, Karen.

I usually open my mail with an antique letter opener that I'm fond of. However, I've noticed I hardly need to use it anymore since most things are already open. It's a wonder the contents haven't fallen out.

Here's my comment to the NYT:

'I've been wondering what that little orange tag hanging on the inside of my PO box meant. It's barely visible for me see it from my side. My box rent is paid up. Hmmm. Thanks, PO staff, for leaving me a clue ;-)

Seriously though, are the PO employees under gag orders when they are told to monitor who sends us what from where? Is the monitoring done at the regional sorting center or at the end point?

I'm hoping postal employees would do as the great librarian Jessamyn West did when, in response to FBI National Security Letters being issued under gag orders to libraries, she hung a sign in the library saying 'THE FBI HAS NOT BEEN HERE (Watch very closely for the removal of this sign)'. I think the Gov has since made even that illegal.

Whether it's the FBI, the NSA, Homeland Security, or Border Patrol, which now patrols 100 miles from the border which encompasses 90% of the US population, the one thing we can be certain of is that Big Brother has us covered - with an Iron Curtain of surveillance.

We know we're in big trouble now that the Government is discussing cancelling passports for us to get OUT.'

voice-in-wilderness said...

I wish more people were aware of Naomi Wolf's book, "The End of America." It was published in 2007 and in just seven more years we've marched steadily down the road to Fascism (thanks, President Lesser Evil). I don't normally associate Naomi Wolf with political commentary and I've never read anything else by her, but it is spot on.

Pearl said...

Karen: Is your dog a Republican? Certainly looks like one.

As for opened letters (and packages) that was common during the McCarthy years and done in a crumpled way that was a warning.

And great to see your comment to Krugman at the very top of the heap.

Fred Drumlevitch said...

For some years now, I've often received packages (usually books, from used-book sellers) with a small cut or tear in the packaging just about the size and location I'd expect from the insertion of a small fiber-optics probe for "inspection".

And when I order something with tracking, it often makes fast progress through the USPS system until it gets to Colorado, where there will be no further "movement" for an extended period of time --- sometimes more than a week. So my guess is that the USPS has some sort of facility in Colorado where such mail spying is done (though there may be others elsewhere).

Finally, I once ordered a book from a supposedly small seller in Nevada --- but the package arrived with a postmark from a town in Maryland where there is reportedly a large NSA presence!

As far as using USPS delivery vans to collect "other" data --- remember the flap some years back when Google vans were collecting/associating wi-fi network addresses with location data? After the past few years of spying revelations, something like that, not "information about weather or air pollutants", seems well within the bounds of possibility and government interest.

I think that Sheldon Wolin is largely correct about this country being mostly an "inverted" totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean that the powers-that-be aren't willing to additionally employ methods that would be quite normal in a more traditional totalitarian state.

Fred Drumlevitch said...

See this great comment from "Clark" at The Intercept:


Denis Neville said...

Wait a minute “Snap”

Postal workers who deliver mail are one of the favorite targets for large, strong and fierce dogs.

Pitbull attacks on letter carriers:


I have seen more than my share of the results of dog attacks than I ever care to see again.

My experience with dog owners is that too many of them do not train and control their dogs. They are worthless dog owners and idiots.

“Pit Bulls Should be Boiled Alive like Lobsters and Fed to Their Idiot Owners”


Pitbull zealots always go postal over criticisms of their favorite dog breed and really know how to “boil a dead dog.”



Karen Garcia said...

Full disclosure: In case anybody was wondering, I adopted the snap of Snap from Google Images in hopes of warding off pinging elite postal officials and their unwanted rings. In real life, all I have are three watch-goldfish (common, not "fancy," in line with my proletarian worldview) in a 20-gallon tank. I'm actually very fond of my friendly mail delivery person.

I agree that with rare exceptions, pit bulls are the pits. Pit bull owners always swear that Cuddles was such a sweet dog who actually baby-sat their kids unattended, like Nana in Peter Pan... until that fateful day when he was "provoked" into mauling the neighbor's puppy... or toddler, who obviously teased and tormented Cuddles into "defending" itself.

It's the same explanation used by parents whose child got into the unlocked gun cabinet and accidentally shot himself or a friend. It was God's will and they're in a better place now praise the lord.

Denis Neville said...

Cartoonist Brian Duffy captures the real “Snap” in this Jim Hightower post:


“The USPS is an unmatched bargain, a civic treasure, a genuine public good that links all people and communities into one nation. So, naturally, it must be destroyed.”

The drive towards privatization of the USPS is equal alarming as postal surveillance program.

One cannot help but wonder how much of the ever increasing costs of postage went to this surveillance program rather than to improving the delivery of mail and working conditions for postal workers.