Yes the government is tracking your snail mail too

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Senators introduce a cost-saving plan to keep the US Postal Service afloat.

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Scott Olson

Amid all of the hype surrounding the revelations that the National Security Agency is collecting troves of data from phone calls and emails is the little known news that the postal service has been doing something similar for decades.

A report out Wednesday in the New York Times details how the US Postal Service photographs and tracks every piece of mail it processes.

And it's been doing it all without a warrant.

The report details two different postal service programs - a low-tech surveillance system called 'mail covers' and the more expansive Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program.

Mail covers allows the post office to isolate a certain user's mail and record any information printed on the outside before it's delivered. 

The postal service puts tens of thousands of pieces of mail thorough this type of scrutiny every year and sends the data to law enforcement, reports the Times.

The more expansive Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was secretly put into effect after the deadly anthrax attacks in 2001. A photograph is taken of the outside of every single piece of mail that is processed by the post office - some 160 billion pieces last year.

"In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime," Mark D. Rasch, the former director of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit told the Times.

"Now it seems to be 'Let's record everyone's mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.' Essentially you’ve added mail covers on millions of Americans."

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The more expansive program came to light last month after the FBI used it to track down the actress suspected of sending ricin-laced letters to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Obama.

According to court documents, the postal service "photographs and captures an image of every piece of mail that is processed." That allowed law enforcement to match up the ricin letters, which had no return address, with other mail sent from the actress' home town.

"It's a treasure trove of information," James J. Wedick, a 34-year veteran of the FBI told the Times.

"Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with — all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena."

But, he added: "It can be easily abused because it’s so easy to use and you don’t have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form."