July 31, 2013


Thinking of giving up email in favor of old-fashioned snail mail delivered by the United States Postal Service to avoid government snooping?

Or thinking of giving up Internet shopping and going back to old-timey brick and mortar stores to protect your privacy?

Think again.

We’ve hardly digested the news that our government secretly records our email and phone traffic. Now we learn that the post office does the same.

The outside of every piece of paper mail sent through the post office is photographed by computers and stored for an undisclosed time, the New York Times reported this month. Last year, that was 160 billion pieces of mail.

Is this why the postal service is going broke and the price of stamps keeps going up? Hello?

The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program does not authorize opening and reading your mail. This still requires that quaint legal document, a warrant. But information on the outside of the letters is sent – usually without judicial review – to law enforcement agencies that ask for it, and tens of thousands of pieces of mail are secretly scrutinized by them each year, the Times reported.

This spying program was instigated after the anthrax attacks in 2001 that killed five people, two of them postal workers. So-called “mail covers” that help detect crimes have been put to good use by the postal service for more than a century. But this is a whole new game with new rules.

Previously, you had to be suspected of a crime before a mail cover order was authorized to track your correspondence. Now mail covers are automatically used on all of us.

“Basically they are doing the same thing as the other programs, collecting the information on the outside of your mail, the metadata if you will, of names, addresses, return addresses and postmark locations, which gives the government a pretty good map of your contacts, even if they aren’t reading the contents,” said computer security expert Bruce Schneider.

My take? Invest in carrier pigeons. Or, perhaps, drones to shoot them down.

Then there’s the latest news from our blessed retailers. Officials at Nordstrom understandably enough reason that they should have access to the same detailed personal information Internet shoppers willingly, or witlessly, leave all over the World Wide Web while shopping on line.

So, quite predictably, they decided to track shoppers by following Wi-Fi signals from their smart phones as they wandered through Nordstrom stores. Like other retailers tracking in-house customers, Nordstrom wanted to know such things as gender and how long shoppers linger at which counters. Technology being tested even allows retailers to analyze not only what shoppers are looking at but also their moods.

If your phone is set to search for Wi-Fi networks, any store offering Wi-Fi can pinpoint where you are in that store within a 10-foot radius even if you don’t connect to the network, according to the Times. Your habitual paths through the store are among recorded behavior.

Unlike our government, Nordstrom warned people about what it was doing: it put up signs saying so. But Nordstrom stopped its experiment in May after shoppers said they didn’t like being spied on.

“The idea that you’re being stalked in a store is, I think, a bit creepy, as opposed to ‘It’s only a cookie – they don’t really know who I am,’” said Robert Plant, computer information systems professor at the University of Miami.

Of course, not everyone cares if they’re spied on and their personal information is spread throughout cyberspace to be monetized by others.

Placed, an app developed by a Seattle company, asks consumers to say where they are in a store in exchange for cash and prepaid gift cards. People who accept this generous offer provide Placed information such as their gender, age and income and agree to have their movements tracked by GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Placed then sells this valuable marketing information to store owners, online retailers and app developers. More than half a million people have downloaded the app.

No mystery, then, why government officials might conclude that a great many of us are indifferent to technology-driven invasions of our privacy.

In these technologically troubled times we must take comfort where we find it, and I found it in a recent, little-noticed judicial outburst by U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer in Washington, D.C. She was asked to dismiss a lawsuit brought against the Obama administration for killing a United States citizen, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, with a drone strike in 2011. He was the son of the U.S.-born al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki. The plaintiffs argue, as might most of us, that killing U.S. citizens without due process is unconstitutional.

But in a jaw-dropping display of high-handedness that surely would have brought liberals to the barricades had it been argued by a Republican administration, the Obama administration’s attorney informed the judge that the courts have no role to play in such cases.

The administration’s breezy dismissal of the courts as irrelevant in deciding constitutional issues is “disconcerting,” said Collyer, surely the understatement of the year. “Where was due process in this case?” she demanded to know.

Government attorney Brian Hauck replied that the administration conducted unspecified “checks” and “reviews.” Plus, he said, Congress is consulted in these matters. But, he in effect argued, it’s really none of any court’s business if the administration decides to kill American citizens.

“No, no, no, no,” retorted Collyer. “The executive [branch] is not an effective check on the executive” when it comes to protecting constitutional rights, the judge said.  “You’re saying there is no courthouse door where this goes through.”

The Constitution established three, not two, branches of government, Collyer reminded. “I consider us a nation of laws, and everybody, from the president down to homeless people, has to follow the law.”

Good luck with that.