Reporter Explains the Program That Lets the Post Office Scan All Envelopes

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

When ricin-laced letters were sent to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama, the FBI used a secret program to track down the sender. It's called the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program. Through it, U.S. Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail - last year, it scanned 160 billion pieces.

WNYC's Amy Eddings interviewed New York Times reporter Ron Nixon, who brought attention to this story.  

 To hear the interview, click on the audio above.


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Comments [3]


"Machines have taken over completely as they sort 30K pieces an hour as opposed to 1200 for a human."

So if 1 machine breaks down for a day, it's like 25 employees calling in sick at the same time. If it's down for a week?

Dec. 07 2014 12:24 AM
George Gene from heartland usa

@Old Time USPS from Michigan, privacy os as much of an illusion asnis security. The problem now is that efficient data collection leads to efficient corruption. Instead of the detective down the street being able to stalk or harass one or two people at the same time, they can now use technology to track and harass at their leisure. There is little work needed to figure things about a specific individual, it van be done months and years afterbthe fact. The problem is that the safegaurds against abuse are few to nonexistent to individuals being given leeway to the point of encouragement to abuse their position. "Trust us we're the good guys and its been going on forever" is a disengenious smoke screen.

Jul. 05 2013 11:52 PM
Old Time USPS from Michigan

As a 33 year veteran of the USPS, and having spent the last 13 of that in a technical support position, I have some insight into this...

It's been decades since humans read and sorted the mail by hand. Machines have taken over completely as they sort 30K pieces an hour as opposed to 1200 for a human...

Since the 80's the mail was scanned and the scans (looking like a fax) were sent to REC (Remote Encoding Sites) for a human to type the destination into a computer. Computers are now powerful enough to do that part of it without the human, and each destination is "resolved" by several different "engines", which are custom software/hardware combinations.

The scans aren't kept long, but the information from them is stored for a month for our own internal tracking and problem resolution procedures. When mail goes to the wrong place people like myself track down where it went wrong and fix whatever caused it. We used to do this on foot, now we sit at a desk and use a computer. This is just the normal way sorting mail works now... although the whole "Mail Covers" program is a different, more manual and less efficient system.

The USPS has always worked closely with the Government on everything from Deadbeat Dads to Welfare Fraud and Drug Running. Our Carriers save lives and stop crimes every day of the week, and many consider that sort of thing just part of the job. I've also seen Postal Inspectors dress up like Carriers to deliver suspect mail, arrest criminals, and work with local Drug Enforcement Teams to meet shipments of drugs coming through the mail.

Honestly, there's nothing new under the sun here. Like every other facet of our lives it's computers taking over what people used to do. Instead of a Detective sitting in an unmarked van down the street it's now an analyst sitting at a computer, sifting through 'metadata'. Instead of an Inspector looking at a return address on a piece of mail it's now filtering Excel data. The end result is the same, even if the process is more efficient. You can argue a loss of privacy due to modern technology, but that privacy was an illusion all along...

Jul. 05 2013 09:29 AM

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