Big Brother in the Mail

Revolutionary Worker #1226, January 25, 2004, posted at

In the film Minority Report, John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise), is a police investigator in PRECRIME, a unit which pursues and arrests people before they commit crimes. As things develop, Anderton finds that he is being pursued by the authorities. In a chilling scene, as Anderton walks through the city trying to evade his pursuers, computerized billboards scan his retinas, retrieve information from centralized databases, and call out to him: "Stressed out, John Anderton? Need a vacation? Come to Aruba!...It's not just a car, Mr. Anderton. It's an environment..." It is a bizarre and unsettling scene, underscoring the vulnerability of the character--trying to be anonymous but identified at every turn.

The film takes place in an imagined future. But this and other scenes from Minority Report are disturbing because they bring to mind things that are already going on today in America. Federal laws are in place allowing police to secretly search and seize everything from personal papers to computer hard drives. Biometric (computer-recognition) cameras are set up at the Super Bowl and in "high-crime" neighborhoods to identify "suspects." Computers log in the pictures and fingerprints of overseas travelers passing through U.S. airports.

Along these lines, a presidential commission has come out with a plan that would expand police powers to spy on people's mail. A report from the commission released in July 2003 declares, "The [U.S.] Postal Service, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, should explore the use of sender identification for every piece of mail, commercial and retail."

Titled "Embracing the Future (Making the Tough Choices to Preserve Universal Mail Service)," the report was issued by a commission appointed by George W. Bush to discuss how to recast the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).

The presidential commission report puts forward a vision of a "digital postal network"-- with barcodes and "smart stamps" on letters that embed information about who sent the mail and where it came from right on the stamp. All this is packaged as necessary to bring the U.S. mail system into the high-tech era and to make it more efficient and "cost-effective"--which no doubt would involve cutting more jobs and driving the remaining workforce harder.

Various capitalist corporations are promoting the concept of "intelligent mail," and they have their particular profit-motive interests. But the presidential commission plan for the USPS is also part of the system's overall moves to ratchet up the police-state powers of the government. The report from the commission says, "The events of 9/11 and the Postal Service anthrax incidents have increased the need to ensure security in the mail system. A more secure system could be built using sender identified mail."

The "events of 9/11" have served as justification for a flood of repressive laws--most notably, the USA Patriot Act.

The "anthrax incidents" refered to by the commission are the letters laced with deadly anthrax spores that criss-crossed the eastern U.S. in the fall of 2001. Four anthrax letters were recovered-- two addressed to top Democratic senators and two sent to media offices in New York City. The letters did not kill their intended targets--but the anthrax material was so sophisticated that it passed through the envelopes and infected people along their path, including secretaries and postal workers. Five people are known to have died from inhaling the spores from these letters.

The official investigation shed little light on who sent those anthrax letters--even as Bush, the media, and others suggested that "terrorists," Saddam Hussein, or other "enemies of the U.S." might have been responsible. In fact, the available evidence makes clear that the anthrax spores came from a U.S.biological weapons lab.* But while not much was said about the U.S. government's biological weapons program, the FBI used the anthrax letters as license to snoop around universities and among the scientific community.

Like other post-9/11 actions, the official response to the anthrax incident shows that what is of utmost concern to the government is not, as they claim, the "safety" of the people, but the expansion of its powers of surveillance, investigation, and law enforcement. And this can also be seen with the plans for the USPS.

"Smart" Stamps

At the center of the Bush commission's plan is something they call "intelligent mail." An article on noted, "Though details remain sketchy, an intelligent mail system would involve using barcodes or special stamps, identifying, at a minimum, the sender, the destination and the class of mail."

The presidential commission's report does not lay out exactly how all this would work. They do say, "Information such as sender identification, geographic origin, and mail class can be applied at the initial stage of the mail process and can be encoded by `smart' stamp vending machines or postage meters at the time of purchase. Then, once specific outgoing mail pieces enter the postal network additional data (chiefly the destination and the date of processing the `postmark') could be added to the barcode by smart processing technology."

Whether barcodes or stamps are used, the objective of the plan apparently is to make every magazine, newspaper, invoice, and correspondence sent through the mail instantly identifiable.

The presidential commission has an answer--and a threat--to those who may object to the "intelligent mail" plan: "Requiring all mail to identify its sender would likely have a negligible impact on most users of the Postal Service who readily identify themselves when they send mail and would consider such a requirement a relatively modest concession to ensure their safety and that of the men and women who deliver the nation's mail. The greatest inconvenience, most certainly, would be to those who use the mail system for unlawful purposes, since such a move would hand law enforcement a powerful new tool to identify and prevent such abuse."

This is the same insidious Catch-22 logic that those like Ashcroft have been using to attack anyone who opposes the expansion of the government's repressive laws and powers. According to this logic, only those who are doing something "criminal" would be concerned about such laws and powers-- and anyone who opposes such moves must have something "bad" to hide.

The reality is that if the "intelligent mail" plan is implemented, it would have a broad and chilling effect throughout society. The government potentially would be able to build a central database of everything that passes through the mail. Any letter of complaint could be clearly identified to a specific sender. No letter to the editor would be anonymous. Everything from credit cards and medicines to political magazines sent through the mail would be subject to the prying eyes of the authorities. And, clearly, "intelligent mail" would be used against the political movements of opposition, especially revolutionary forces.

The "intelligent mail" plan is not widely known at this point, but some groups concerned with issues of privacy and technology are beginning to speak out. Ari Scwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology told that there is "a long history in this country of anonymous political speech," and removing anonymity in the mail system would mark "a major change to political discourse in this country." The Electronic Privacy Information Center warned that "intelligent mail" could facilitate expanded government surveillance powers.

Mail Covers

Monitoring of mail is actually already a basic tool of police spying. The FBI and other police agencies routinely perform "mail covers"--looking at the information on an envelope, without the permission or knowledge of the sender or receiver of the piece of mail. This has been happening long before the USA Patriot Act and other new repressive laws were passed in the wake of 9/11.

In July 2000, the U.S. Congress held hearings on the FBI's Internet spying software known as Carnivore. In the hearings, NY Congressman Jerrold Nadler asked Deputy Associate Attorney General Kevin DiGregory about how the question of "probable cause" applied to the FBI's getting phone records (which Justice Department officials were likening to monitoring e-mail addresses). DiGregory claimed that the U.S. Supreme Court had already determined "that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in numbers dialed by a telephone, because essentially when someone turns over information to a third party, like the telephone company, they should not have either a subjective or an objective reasonable expectation of privacy in that information."

Nadler then asked, "Does that mean that when I send a letter, there's no reasonable expectation of privacy as to whom I'm sending the letter, in the snail mail? Could you get an order to the post office to tell you, without any probable cause, who is sending me mail or whom I'm sending mail to?"

DiGregory's answer was quite revealing: "We do mail covers all the time, which essentially do that." And the only thing that the Justice Department needs to do to get official clearance for doing mail covers is to tell the court that the spying is somehow relevant to an investigation. "Smart stamps" would allow the FBI to get even more information from surveillance of the mail.

While the report from the presidential commission casts the "intelligent mail" plan as "preliminary," there are signs that some actual steps are in motion. noted in August, "Major high-tech companies, including Canon, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Pitney Bowes, Symbol Technologies and, are pushing the Postal Service to adopt intelligent mail systems. Each participates in a special committee on intelligent mail run by the Mailing Industry Task Force, a cross-industry group formed in 2001 with the support of Postmaster General John Potter."

The authorities already use the mail as a way of garnering information and furthering "investigations." Sophisticated barcodes on envelopes, smart stamps, and the whole concept of "intelligent mail" seek to take this to a whole other level of police operations.


* In her paper "Analysis of the Anthrax Attacks," Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, Ph.D. points out that (among other things) "The Daschle sample [anthrax spores in the letters sent to Senator Daschle] contains a special form of silica used in the U.S. process. The extraordinary concentration (one trillion spores per gram) and purity of the letter anthrax is believed to be characteristic of material made by the optimal U.S. process." Rosenberg also notes, "The optimal U.S. weaponization process is secret. Bill Patrick, its inventor, holds five secret patents on the process and says it involves a combination of chemicals. There is no evidence that any other country possesses the formula." For further information, see "Anthrax Letters: Made in the USA," RW #1145, online at

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