Domestic surveillance needn't be electronic. Last year alone, the US Postal Service OK'd almost 50,000 official requests to snoop on people's mail for investigative purposes, the New York Times reports. The numbers come from an audit conducted by the USPS inspector general, who pointed to a range of flaws in the program: "Insufficient controls could hinder the Postal Inspection Service's ability to conduct effective investigations, lead to public concerns over privacy of mail, and harm the Postal Service's brand," the audit, which appeared in May to little notice, says. It notes that "21% [of requests] were approved without written authority and 13% were not adequately justified or reasonable grounds were not transcribed accurately," Bloomberg reports.
The data shows a larger program than had previously been revealed and raises concerns over limited oversight, slowness, and tracking errors; there's also evidence of some official abuses, the Times notes. (In one case, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona used it to investigate a political opponent, who later won a lawsuit against the county.) The process has actually been around for more than a century, but it gained importance following 9/11; it involves noting names and addresses from mail without opening it. Every mailed item is also photographed under a "mail imaging" system that's sometimes used for surveillance. But the Postal Service says the surveillance, known as mail covers, is far less aggressive than the NSA's. "You can't just get a mail cover to go on a fishing expedition," says an official. "There has to be a legitimate law enforcement reason."