Wyden, Paul and Bipartisan Senators Call for Reform to Surveillance of Americans’ Letters And Packages
Senators Lee, Booker, Lummis, Warren, Daines and Markey Join Letter Calling for Court Orders to U.S. Postal Inspection Service; Tens of Thousands of Mail Records Are Provided Each Year; Independent Watchdogs Recommend Reforms To Provide Transparency and Checks on Mail Surveillance
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and six bipartisan senators today called for stronger protections for the privacy of Americans’ letters and packages, in a letter to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) today. Wyden chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and Paul is ranking member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
Senators Cynthia Lummis, R-Wy., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., co-signed the letter.
USPIS regularly tracks the senders and recipients of letters and packages and sends that information to law-enforcement agencies, without any court oversight. This method of government surveillance is known as “mail covers.”
“While mail covers do not reveal the contents of correspondence, they can reveal deeply personal information about Americans’ political leanings, religious beliefs, or causes they support,” the senators wrote. “Consequently, surveillance of this information does not just threaten Americans’ privacy, but their First Amendment rights to freely associate with political or religious organizations or peacefully assemble without the government watching.”
The Postal Inspection Service has not reported the number of mail records it requests since 2014, or any information about how many letters and packages are searched. A 2014 audit by the Office of Inspector General showed government agencies requested more than 100,000 mail records between 2010 and 2014.
The USPS Inspector General recommended a number of reforms to mail surveillance in 2014 and 2015 audits, but it is unclear how the agency responded to those recommendations.
“USPIS must reform its regulations for mail covers to protect Americans’ privacy,” the senators wrote. “USPS and USPIS should, except in emergencies, only conduct mail covers when a federal judge has approved this surveillance— a policy that USPIS already has in place for searches of the contents of mail — and it should also notify the targets of surveillance after the fact, unless a judge requires that such notice be delayed.”
The senators requested USPIS answer the following questions:
- In its May 28, 2014 and September 15, 2015 audits of the mail covers program, the OIG recommended that USPIS implement new policies, procedures and a system of controls to ensure responsible personnel process mail covers in a timely manner and to ensure data integrity in the mail covers application. Please provide us with a copy of all documentation that USPIS submitted to the OIG, outlining how it implemented the recommendations.
- In its formal response to the September 15, 2015 follow-up OIG audit of the mail covers program, USPIS indicated that if Congress requested statistics on the mail covers program, it would provide them. Please provide us with statistics for mail covers of mail requested by postal inspectors and by other government agencies, as well as statistics of mail covers approved, broken out by the requesting agency, for each of the years between 2014 and 2021.
- Please also provide us with annual statistics relating to the amount of mail opening, or opening or inspecting the contents of sealed mail, that is conducted by USPIS and USPS. Specifically, please provide us with the number of mail openings requested by postal inspectors and by other government agencies, broken out by the requesting agency, for each of the years between 2014 and 2021.
- In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Carpenter v. United States, holding that Americans can have a reasonable expectation of privacy in some information that is revealed to third parties, the mail covers program raises serious constitutional questions. Has USPIS evaluated its mail cover regulations, and its surveillance practices generally, after the Carpenter decision?
The full letter is available here.
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