A bipartisan team of eight senators, led by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY), have raised concerns about the ease with which the United States Post Office can conduct surveillance on American citizens. Their concerns were communicated in a letter to Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale. This follows a 2020 Pew survey, which rated the Post Office as the most trusted federal institution despite concerns regarding its operational speed.
The senators’ key issues focus on the extensive use of “mail covers” and the opacity of USPS surveillance activities. “Mail covers” refer to the practice of USPS recording information from the exterior of mails and forwarding it to law enforcement. Critics argue this form of surveillance is too intrusive, particularly on a large scale, and is too readily exploitable by the government.
Despite a 2020 report urging changes, the USPS Office of Inspector General, responsible for checking waste, fraud, and abuse within USPS, has remained silent. Additionally, data about mail covers have not been disclosed since 2014. The senators are interested in whether USPS has made changes following the 2018 Carpenter v. United States Supreme Court decision that reinforced the need for probable cause before acquiring cell-site data.
The USPS, which has a law enforcement branch known as the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), can use mail covers to surveil individuals of interest to federal law enforcement. This surveillance action can be initiated merely by a written request, without needing endorsement from a judge or higher authority. A 2022 lawsuit against USPS and USPIS for scanning social media posts and using facial recognition software was dismissed due to a lack of standing.