On Friday, the Postal Service confirmed it takes photos of every package and letter mailed inside the United States. Last year that amounted to approximately 160 billion pieces.
The photos on occasion are provided to law enforcement groups that request them when involving criminal cases.
The photos are taken at over 200 processing location across the country and are primarily used to help sort mail at the agency, said Patrick Donahoe, the postmaster general, in a recent interview.
However, Donahoe said the photos have been used a few times to trace letters through law enforcement in different criminal cases, such as ones involving the letters that were laced with ricin and mailed President Obama as well as Michael Bloomberg the Mayor of New York City.
The images of packages and letters are usually stored for just one week to 30 days and then are destroyed.
In July, the New York Times released a report about the practice of photographing the mail, which has the name Mail Isolation and Tracking System.
This program was established by the Postal Service following the anthrax attacks that took place back in 2001 that killed five, including two workers in the Postal Service.
The newspaper reported the program was just a bigger version of the surveillance system mail covers, which at law enforcement requests, postal employees record information on the outside of parcels and letters prior to their delivery.
That information is sent to the agency that requested it. Thousands of pieces of the country’s mail go under this form of scrutiny and several agencies in law enforcement have taken advantage of its use such as the FBI and DEA.
Mail covers do not fall under judicial oversight. Agencies simply must complete a form then submit it to the Postal Inspection Service.
These digital tracking programs involving the mail have raised many concerns over how sweeping they are since the postal service and law enforcement can monitor all the mail, not just mail that is thought to involve a crime.