The records show that law enforcement is spying on the mail of thousands of Americans.

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The U.S. Postal Service has shared information on thousands of Americans' letters and packages each year with law enforcement agencies for the past decade, including names, addresses and other details on the outside of boxes and envelopes without the need for a court order. are told.

Postal inspectors say they grant such requests only when monitoring the mail could help track down a fugitive or help investigate a crime. But a decade of records, provided exclusively to The Washington Post in response to a congressional investigation, show that Postal Service officials have received more than 60,000 requests from federal agents and police officers since 2015, and that they And rarely say.

Each request could cover days or weeks of mail sent to a person or address, and according to statistics, 97 percent of requests were approved. Postal inspectors recorded more than 312,000 letters and packages between 2015 and 2023, records show.

The surveillance technique, known as the mail cover program, has long been used by postal inspectors to help track down suspects or evidence. The process is legal, and inspectors said they only share what they can see outside the mail. The Fourth Amendment requires them to get a warrant to look inside.

But the Postal Service's law enforcement arm, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, has traditionally declined to say how often it facilitates such requests, a 2015 audit said. Details would reduce the program's effectiveness by “alerting criminals” to how the technique works.

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For that audit, the agency said it approved more than 158,000 requests from postal inspectors and law enforcement officials over the past four years. The IRS, FBI and Department of Homeland Security were among the top applicants.

In a May 2023 letter, a group of eight senators, including Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), urged the agency to That he appoint a federal judge. approved the requests and shared more details about the program, saying officials there “have chosen to provide this surveillance service and keep postal users in the dark about the fact that they are being monitored.” has gone.”

In a response earlier this month, Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale declined to change the policy but provided nearly a decade of data showing that postal inspectors, federal agencies, and state and local police forces made an average of 6,700 requests. year, and those inspectors also recorded data from another 35,000 miles a year.

In a letter to senators in June 2023, Barksdale said the program was not a “mass surveillance tool” and focused only on mail that police and national security agencies could use to “carry out their missions and can help protect the American people.”

He added that the practice had been legally permitted since 1879, a year after the Supreme Court ruled that government officials required a warrant before opening any sealed letter.

“There is no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to information outside the mail,” Barksdale wrote.

“These new statistics show that thousands of Americans are subject to warrantless surveillance each year, and that the Postal Inspection Service rubber stamps virtually all of those requests,” Wyden said in a statement. He also criticized the agency for “refusing to raise its standards and requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain court orders to monitor Americans' mail outside of what already monitors emails and texts.” is necessary for.”

Concerns over postal surveillance are classically American. In 1798, Vice President Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter that his fear of his private communications being exposed by the “infidelities of the Post Office” prevented him from “writing fully and freely.”

In their letter last year, the senators said the outside of mail can also be deeply revealing to many Americans, giving clues about the people they talk to, the bills they pay, The churches they attend, their political views and their membership, the social causes they support.

In 1978, a circuit court judge said that a mail cover could expose someone's personal life “in a way that could not be achieved even by monitoring his movements,” “the subject's life.” An open book”.

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