When the news broke about the NSA's mass digital surveillance of millions of Americans, whether or not they were suspected of any wrongdoing, it reminded me of the FBI's old Hoover-era mail surveillance programs—and the FBI's stern and sustained rebuke from the US Senate in the mid-1970s for that kind of domestic surveillance. I wondered if quaint old snail mail might become a new form of communicating privately. No such luck. From the NYT:
Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: A handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.
“Show all mail to supv” — supervisor — “for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. It included Mr. Pickering’s name, address and the type of mail that needed to be monitored. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green.
“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Mr. Pickering’s mail but told him nothing else.
All the government-spying-on-its-own-citizens arguments aside, this kind of surveillance lends itself to serious abuse from tin-pot bureaucrats who have vendettas against personal, political, or professional critics. From lower in the article:
In May 2012, Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor, was awarded nearly $1 million by a federal judge after winning a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his immigration raids in Arizona, who, among other things, obtained mail covers from the Postal Service to track her mail. The judge called the investigation into Ms. Wilcox politically motivated because she had been a frequent critic of Mr. Arpaio, objecting to what she considered the targeting of Hispanics in his immigration sweeps. The case is being appealed.
Yes, the digital age has brought new legal dimensions to state surveillance—but it looks like even our lo-fi means of communicating with each other has gone back to the bad old days of law enforcement spying on people it thinks are "different." In 1976, the Senate Church Committee wrote:
Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps, microphone "bugs", surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept in vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of American citizens. Investigations of groups deemed potentially dangerous — and even of groups suspected of associating with potentially dangerous organizations—have continued for decades, despite the fact that those groups did not engage in unlawful activity.
Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles. Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable.
US Senators understood why that was a problem back in 1975. Hell, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and the rest of the founders who insisted on the Bill of Rights understood why that was a problem two hundred years before that.