At the request of law enforcement officials, postal workers record information from the outside of letters and parcels before they are delivered. (Actually opening the mail requires a warrant.) The information is sent to whatever law enforcement agency asked for it. Tens of thousands of pieces of mail each year undergo this scrutiny. . . .
For mail cover requests, law enforcement agencies simply submit a letter to the Postal Service, which can grant or deny a request without judicial review. Law enforcement officials say the Postal Service rarely denies a request. In other government surveillance program, such as wiretaps, a federal judge must sign off on the requests. The mail cover surveillance requests are granted for about 30 days, and can be extended for up to 120 days. There are two kinds of mail covers: those related to criminal activity and those requested to protect national security. The criminal activity requests average 15,000 to 20,000 per year, said law enforcement officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited by law from discussing the requests. The number of requests for antiterrorism mail covers has not been made public. . . .
[The federal government currently operates a program called] the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.From Ron Nixon, "U.S. Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement", The New York Times (July 3, 2012).
The notion that police could make particularized mail cover requests without a warrant in the course of a criminal investigation has been well established U.S. constitutional law for man decades. But, very few people are aware that the U.S. Postal system systemically makes copies of the exterior of every single piece of paper mail processed in the United States without any particularized suspicion that a sender or recipient is engaged in criminal activity or is the subject of a particular national security intelligence investigation.
This disclosure must be taken together with the recently disclosed fact that the United States collects metadata (essentially the phone number of the caller, place of a cell phone caller's originating call's location, phone number of the person receiving the call, place of a cell phone call receiver's location, and time and duration of the call) for every single telephone call made in the entire United States.
And, there is also far more pervasive surveillance of e-mail and other Internet activity, including the storage of the full text of every single encrypted e-mail send via the Internet that can be obtained from major e-mail providers, than had been previously understood because the standards under which FISA has been enforced are far more lax that a naïve reading of the statute or disclosures to Congress and the public had suggested.
The Patriot Act gives the federal government the power to access any business records without allowing the provider to tip off the subject of the request (which often appears to include broad blanket requests with no particularized target that the person receiving the request can discern) and has used that on many occasions. These can include toll road records, airport flight data, interstate bus and train travel reservation and ticketing records, hotel and motel occupancy or reservation records, book purchases and library borrowings, pay TV viewing records, bank account and credit account records, casino records, anti-theft device GPS records, GPS tracking records of cell phone locations when not in use, grocery store loyalty card records, utility billing information, surveillance camera tapes, insurance records, medical billing records, pharmacy records, veterinary records, credit reporting records of individuals and businesses, loan application information, employment applications, and more. Legal privileges provide only limited protection for much of this information.
I suspect, but don't know, that the federal government can obtain records from private DNA testing companies to get the exact DNA profiles of people who have paid to have these done.
Needless to say, there are also a host of federal, state, local and foreign government records which federal authorities can gain access to, if desired (many of which are also available to the general public) in many cases. Birth and death certificates, immigration records including records of almost all international travel by everyone, motor vehicle license and state ID records, educational records such as transcripts and disciplinary records, criminal and traffic and parking violation records (including arrests never leading to charges filed), property records and lien filings, terrorist watch lists, civil court records, involuntary mental health commitment records, flagged gun purchase waiting period records, motor vehicle ownership records, federal, state and local tax records, corporate information filings, license application filings, police and regulatory action reports, change of address form filings, voter registrations, pet licenses, traffic camera feeds on public roads and highways, background check data including fingerprints, and so on.
Also, while there hasn't been discussion of it yet, the incredibly detailed photographs available from spy satellites whose photos have been displayed to the public in connection with foreign military operations are also perfectly capable of being pointed at locations in the United States.
There are tiny pockets of privacy left, but they reside in an ocean of public information and the private information can often be inferred from the public information.