Tuesday, 9 July 2013

US Post Office's Low Tech Snoops

YEARS ago, in the 1960s, we found out that our local dole office in Rochdale had been compiling files on claimants entitle 'Derog' or 'Derogatory'.  In 1966, a group of anarchists attached to the then Manchester Anarchist Group raided Rochdale Labour Exchange near Rochdale station and took away a file which had details of my signing record; when this was later examined it was found that it contained a dossier on me every bit as compromising as some of the stuff in the Consulting Association's blacklist files run by the now deceased Ian Kerr and the 40-odd firms that have been exposed.  So here we had public servants (probably members of a public sector union) keeping records that were detrimental to a claimant who they were being paid to help into work.  At that time the Economic League was also active.  The police paid me a visit after I had contacted Geoff Whitworth, who later became an editor of the Rochdale Observer.  These files were never returned the the Rochdale Labour Exchange and the police took no further action, presumably because their contents were too embarrassing to the authorities.  Then around 1970, I believe questions were asked by a Liberal MP in the House of Commons, and still later in the 1970s the Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP) took up the story and interviewed the then manager of the Rochdale Labour Exchange:  he assured us that the practises of compiling 'Derog' files had by that time been abandoned.

Last Thursday, in the International Herald Tribune, Ron Nixon wrote:
'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.'
The contents of the card were 'Show all mail to supv for copying prior to going out on the street'.  It included Mr. Pickering's name, adress and the type of mail to be monitored, and the word 'confidential' was highlighted in green.

Mr. Pickering, who owns a small bookshop in Buffalo and was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, said:  'It was a bit of a shock to see it!'  It seems that his group is labelled 'eco-terrorists' by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Later postal officials confirmed they were tracking Mr. Pickering's mail but told him nothing.

It seems that Mr. Pickering was targeted by a long-time surveillance system called 'mail covers', yet that is only a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control & Tracking, in which the Postal Service computers photograph the outside of ever piece of paper mail that is processed in the USA.

Ron Nixon writes that together the two programs show that snail mail gets the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mails.  He writes that the 'mail-covers program' used to keep tabs on Mr. Pickering, is over a century old but is still seen as a powerful tool.   It seems that at the request of law enforcement authorities, postal workers record information on the outside of letters and parcels before they are delivered.  According to Mr.Nixon tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this scrutiny.

I wonder what the Communications Workers' Union in this country thinks about this?

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