In addition to the email and phone metadata the U.S. government is tracking, the feds also have an eye on your regular old snail mail, which is actually a "treasure trove of information," according to a former FBI agent who used to work with the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, as it's called. One would think that snail mail, a relic from a former century, wouldn't provide that much insight into our lives -- isn't it all bills and unwamted brochures by now? But, it's just about as useful, it not more so, than digital collection. "Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena," James J. Wedick, the FBI agent, told The New York Times's Ron Nixon.
That's pretty much what the NSA can find through digital tracking, as explained here, but the mail surveillance program is even worse from a privacy advocates standpoint because there is zero oversight. "You just fill out a form," Wedick explains. The U.S. Postal Service grants or denies the request withoutany judicial overview — there's not even a secret court involved. And it's all okay, say courts, because people shouldn't expect privacy for the outside of their mail. Which: sure, anyone can look at the outside of a given envelope. But, is that the same thing as someone rifling through our mail every single day? Apparently.
The government has used that argument to justify digital surveillance, notes Nixon. "Officials in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, in fact, have used the mail-cover court rulings to justify the N.S.A.’s surveillance programs, saying the electronic monitoring amounts to the same thing as a mail cover," he writes. Congress hasn't even talked about the physical mail tracking program since 1976, even with "sporadic" reports of abuse, like opening letters to and from the Soviet Union. The whole thing sounds like a disturbing look at how the current digital surveillance program will look in 40 years: After debate, the program continues, people forget about it and then it's a weird precedent for more tracking.