Going Postal. And Digital. And Financial: The Dragnet Elephant

Blind MenThe NYT has a report on an IG Report from May that reveals the Postal Service has been doing a lot more “mail covers” (that is, tracking the metadata from letters) than it had previously revealed.

In a rare public accounting of its mass surveillance program, the United States Postal Service reported that it approved nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations.

The number of requests, contained in a little-noticed 2014 audit of the surveillance program by the Postal Service’s inspector general, shows that the surveillance program is more extensive than previously disclosed and that oversight protecting Americans from potential abuses is lax.

Among the most interesting revelations is that USPS previously lowballed the number of covers it does in response to a NYT FOIA by simply not counting most of the searches.

In information provided to The Times earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act, the Postal Service said that from 2001 through 2012, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies made more than 100,000 requests to monitor the mail of Americans. That would amount to an average of some 8,000 requests a year — far fewer than the nearly 50,000 requests in 2013 that the Postal Service reported in the audit.

The difference is that the Postal Service apparently did not provide to The Times the number of surveillance requests made for national security investigations or those requested by its own investigation and law enforcement arm, the Postal Inspection Service. Typically, the inspection service works hand in hand with outside law enforcement agencies that have come to the Postal Service asking for investigations into fraud, pornography, terrorism or other potential criminal activity.

The report led Ben Wittes to engage in a thought experience, predicting the response to this revelation will be muted compared to that of the phone dragnet.

All of this raises the question: Will this program generate the sort of outrage, legal challenge, and feverish energy for legislative reform that the NSA program has? Or will it fall flat?

I have this feeling that the answer is the latter: The Postal Service’s looking at the outside of letters at the request of law enforcement just won’t have the same legs as does the big bad NSA looking at the routing information for telephone calls. The reason, I suspect, is not that there are profound legal differences between the two programs. Yes, one can certainly argue that the difference between a program that aspires to be totalizing and one that is notionally targeted, even if very large, is fundamental enough to justify regarding the former with great skepticism and tolerating the latter with a shrug. On the other hand, one could just as easily argue that a program that involves the active perusal of tens of thousands of people’s metadata without strict controls is far more threatening than one that involves tight procedures under judicial oversight and involves initial queries of only a few hundred people’s data.

The reason, I suspect, that this program will not excite the same sorts of passions as does the NSA’s program is that it involves old technology—paper—and it’s been going on for a long time.

I agree with Wittes that this won’t generate the same kind of outrage.

The fact that few noticed when Josh Gerstein reported on this very same report (and revealed that the USPS was trying to prevent the report’s release) back in June (I noticed, but did not write on it) supports Wittes’ point.

All that said, Wittes’ piece serves as an interesting example. Partly because he overstates the oversight of the phone dragnet program. Somehow Wittes doesn’t think the watchlisting of 3,000 presumed American persons with no First Amendment review until 2009 is not an example of abuse. Nor the preservation of 3,000 files worth of phone dragnet data on a research server, mixed in with Stellar Wind data, followed by its destruction before NSA had to explain what it was doing there (which is a more recent abuse than Joe Arpaio’s use of the mail dragnet to target a critic, reported in the NYT).

But also because Wittes misconstrues what a true comparison would entail.

To compare phone dragnet, generally, with the mail dragnet described by the NYT (now including both its national security and Postal Inspection searches), you’d have to compare Title III and local law enforcement phone metadata searches (which number in the hundreds of thousands and include the use of Stingrays to track phone location), Hemisphere (which must number in the 10s of thousands and not only undergo no court review, but are explicitly parallel constructed), the use of NSLs to obtain phone metadata (which number in the 10s of thousands, and which are not overseen by a court, have been subject to abuse, also miscount the most important requests, and access new kinds of data that probably aren’t really covered under the law), the Section 215 dragnet, the FBI bulk PRTT program, as well as the far far bigger EO 12333 phone dragnet.

That is, Wittes wants to compare the totality of the mail dragnet with a teeny segment of even the NSA phone dragnet, all while ignoring the state, local, and other federal agency (including at least FBI, USMS, and DEA) phone dragnets entirely, and declare the former roughly equivalent to the latter (better in some ways, worse in others). If you were to compare the totality of the mail dragnet (admittedly, you’d have to add Fedex and other courier dragnets) with the totality of the phone dragnet, the latter would vastly exceed the former in every way: in abuse, in lack of oversight, and in scale.

And to measure the “passions” mobilized against the phone dragnet, you’d have to measure it all. Attention to the various parts has been fleeting: today there’s more focus on Stingrays, for example, with comparatively less attention to the Section 215 phone dragnet, along with a focus on Hemisphere. There’s so much phone dragnet to go around, it’s like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

Or perhaps more appropriately, of that old fable of the 6 blind men and the elephant, where each of a series of blind men describe an elephant. These men each feel one part of the elephant and see a pillar, a rope, a tree branch, a hand fan, a wall, and a solid pipe.  Together, they fail to conceive of the elephant in its entirety.

Wittes’ partial view of the phone dragnet describes just one part of one part of the dragnet elephant. At both the NSA, the FBI, and local JTTFs (at a minimum) you’re not conceiving the dragnet unless you understand the implications of matching your phone records and email records to your financial purchases and Internet search cookies — and, your snail mail, which is ultimately just a part of the larger dragnet. Each of those dragnets has several interlocking forms, too. More Title III orders, more NSLs, more Section 215 orders, and more EO 12333 collection. All dumped into a black box that — even for the Section 215 phone dragnet — undergoes no apparent oversight.

But Wittes is by no means alone in his partial view of the dragnet elephant. We all suffer from it. Since the very start of the Snowden leaks, I have been trying hard to track how NSA data gets shared with other agencies (see, for example, NCTC, FBI and CIA, “Team Sport,” ATF). I suspect I’ve got as good an understanding of how this data worms its way through the government as anyone outside of some corners of government, but it still looks like an elephant trunk to me.

That, to me, is the real lesson from the focus on yet another dragnet available to yet more intelligence and law enforcement agencies. None of us yet have a good sense of the scope of the dragnet. It is, quite literally, inconceivable. And we have even less of an idea of what happens after the dragnet feeds all that data into a series of black boxes, most subject to very little oversight.

With each new elephant body part identified, we’d do well to remember, it’s just one more body part.

12 replies
  1. galljdaj says:

    Well these articles are not the proof I need, but it certainly adds to my complaints truthful status.
    My encounters of illegal USPS and US Customs handling of Our Mails began with the lil bush gang administration. First Mail disappeared (3 letters), then a package disappeared in Customs, finally arriving more than 6 months late stripped of all identification, still in its original outer packaging but absolutely cleaned as to origin or destination, on my front porch one day out of the blue! Then there was a conversation, that would not provide any answers, with the USPS problems peoples, in which they knew who I was when I called using a secure phone! I never told them who I was merely asking general questions that applied to my problems.

    Next came the big problems. Registered Mail destroyed with contamination and crumpled into a ball like to be thrown in a waste basket, and handed to me in a clear plastic bag at a USPS post office. No explanation would be provided. My disassembly of the mess showed the envelope had been cut open on three sides with a very sharp knife. No Accident! Then damaged. What happened next was no responses to my inquiries,(USPS Inspector General, FBI, AG, US Senate Committee with responsibility for the USPS. Finally USPS inspector answered questions with lies that I quickly proved to his face were lies to which I complained the the Postmaster that witnessed the lies and proof of, to which the inspector immediately threatened me with bodily harm, if I did not stop investigating. When I responded, ‘when your ready’, he added, “And now you’ll also loose all the rights you think you have!”
    Additional complaint were submitted to the USPS Inspector General, the AG(LIL HOLDER), and Our President(lil obama) , with the same no response(s).

    This has been followed by registered mail totally disappeared! Next, Mail with Tracking paid for, not being tracked as in reported, Its still to soon to know its been ‘taken’.

    I have attempted to find out if I am on the so called ‘no fly list’ with negative no answers! As a Nation we are in big trouble!

  2. galljdaj says:

    I published the truth about the ~126 or so White Papers of the PNAC, and challenged the lies of the lil bush gang. My work produced the status I find myself in today. Its much better than most of their victims or even lil obama’s victims. That said, I still care and want better for this Country I helped build after WWll.

    I’m old and have experienced the evils Our Country deploys on ‘opposition’. I worked hard to defeat the lil bush gang, and published much in forecasting where it would and was taking the Country. I used to say, ‘lil bush was running down a mountain and taking the Country with him over the cliff. The result would take the Country more than 50 years to repair. Now lil obama has caused me to double the 50 years needed to get us back to prior lil ronnie.

    I won’t see any of that. A blog is out of the question. Maybe you have the comprehension, maybe you don’t. But lil obama blew any chance we had of reversing the run down the mountain into the greatest depression ever, when he did not put the lil bush gang on a plane to the ICC FOR THEIR WAR CRIMES.

    Today, its too late, and its survive at whatever costs. Best for folks to get that sense!

  3. Betty says:

    Is this why mail between the US and the Caribbean now takes 4 weeks to be delivered? A relatively recent phenomenon.

  4. TarheelDem says:

    This might capture more public attention if the investigation was augmented by finding out how postal addresses captured from internal mail of private corporations and public agencies winds up on corporately purchased mailing lists as well as opening up the windows on the data brokering industry as a whole. Data brokering started as an outgrowth of mailing list management and lettershop operations.

    And then how public investigators use these unconstitutionally (at least) and often illegally gathered sources of mailing addresses and mail to feed back into investigations.

    The whole idea of private investigators has been so romanticized by fiction that few have asked the constitutional and legal questions of what actually goes on in these real businesses. And who exactly they benefit.

  5. edge says:

    It’s alarming, but a little less so because:

    a) Other than the postmark, there’s no tracking of the sender
    b) Other than junk-mailers, very few people use the USPS anymore

    • P J Evans says:

      Quite a few people use the USPS. So do a lot of businesses. They’ve been limited (unnecessarily) by Congress, but they still go everywhere for a lot less money than commercial delivery services.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      I doubt that your conclusion is true. Many people are entirely dependent on the USPS for physical delivery of mail. We’re all dependent on it for voting information, jury participation, taxes, communications with local, state and federal government, and other legal purposes.

      Universal, ready and relatively inexpensive access to mail service is an essential element of democratic government. That’s one reason why even the partial privatization of the USPS is alarming. Equally alarming is this sort of intrusive and expensive data collection and analysis. Are there rules governing it? Or is “collect it all and keep it for eternity” the only rule? What are the costs? What services or employment practices are dispensed with because of those costs?

      Apart from a host of other considerations, how much of the cost of a stamp now pays for these sorts of “national security” monitoring programs when it might more usefully be used to pay for the efficient handling and delivery of mail, which includes fair employment practices for postal workers. Ask your harried postal worker any time during the Christmas rush.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The USPS collects quite a bit of data, presumably intended explicitly to share it with investigative agencies. Among other things, it scans the exterior of every item, preserving such data as physical size and appearance, indications of materials used, written or typed addresses, the arrangement of data on its surfaces, etc. And of course there’s the sending, transit and receiving postal centers and sending and receiving mail addresses. All of this data could be readily digitally analyzed and cross-referenced with ever more intrusive, and possibly occasionally accurate analytical software. Integrate that data with reams of other data available from governmental and commercial databases and the “file” on each person and related physical and virtual (eg, cell phone and computer internet) address grows exponentially.

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