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Why the US Postal Service Turned Spy

Written by Subject: Privacy Rights

FATCA and similar laws have eviscerated financial privacy in the US. And last year, thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, the world learned the extent of the surveillance conducted by America's largest spy agency, the NSA.

Now the Postal Service has joined in the game, introducing an NSA-style dragnet over mail delivery.

The most shocking aspect of the crackdown against financial and electronic privacy is the lengths that Congress, the Treasury Department, the NSA, and now the Postal Service have gone to subvert our constitutional right to privacy.

The lesson is the same, too. If you want privacy – of any type – you won't find it in the US. But you will find it offshore.

How Treasury and the NSA Subverted Privacy in the US

Acting through the non-governmental organization called the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Treasury Department forced supposedly non-binding recommendations into law. This has had the effect of gradually subverting any meaningful constitutional protection of your financial privacy from the US government. Today, Treasury agencies are literally hardwired into America's banks and must be notified instantly whenever a customer engages in a "suspicious transaction." Your bank statement, individual financial transactions, and even copies of your checks are available for warrantless inspection by the IRS anytime.

In the case of the NSA, the top-secret documents Snowden leaked revealed that the NSA taps directly into Internet servers, switches, and hubs to extract not just emails, but audio and video chats, photographs, documents, and connection logs. Companies mentioned in the documents include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. The backbone of the Internet has been utterly compromised.

All this, of course, to keep America "safe from terror."

Fortunately, you don't need to take the erosion of privacy lying down. You just need to go offshore. Offshore, financial privacy is alive and well to protect yourself against nuisance lawsuits and other threats.

Next on the Hit List: Postal Privacy

The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that the government can't open first-class mail, such as letters and sealed packages, unless a court issues a warrant backed by probable cause. (Newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and other printed matter have no such protection.) But the privacy advantages of first-class mail have mostly disappeared, thanks to the War on Terror.

Before 2001, the only way that the Postal Inspection Service could inspect mail was if it fit into broad "suspicious package profiles" the service had created. The profiles relied on dog sniffs carried out by animals trained to alert to narcotics, other contraband, or cash. Drug-sniffing dogs may check packages sent to or from "source areas for the distribu­tion of narcotics and/or controlled sub­stances." It turns out that every major city in the US is such a "source area."

After 9/11, that wasn't enough for Congress. In 2002, it gave the Customs Service the authority to conduct warrantless searches of international first-class mail. And in 2006, President George W. Bush quietly asserted a new government prerogative to open any type of mail. In a "signing statement" attached to a reform act that was support to enhance postal privacy, Bush claimed the government could open any postal correspondence without a warrant, probable cause, or even suspicion that it contains dangerous materials or contraband. The only requirement is that the mail opening be related to "foreign intelligence collection."

Of course, just about anything could conceivably be related to "foreign intelligence collection." It's a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.

Even if the feds don't open your mail, they can track it without a warrant. A postal "mail cover" provides police and investigative agencies with a written record of all data appearing on the exterior envelope or packaging of any class of mail you receive. The Postal Service doesn't open correspondence to create a mail cover. Therefore, Fourth Amendment limitations on search and seizure don't apply. No warrant is required.

But mail covers seem pretty tame, thanks to a new program called the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) program. The Postal Service now photographs the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States – about 160 billion pieces in 2012.

Together, the Bush signing statement, mail covers, and the MICT demonstrate that postal mail is subject to the same type of pervasive surveillance the NSA conducts on our electronic communications.

Of course, you could also use a private courier – but don't expect any more privacy. The terms of service of all major couriers give them permission to inspect the contents of the packages you send, or turn them over to the feds, without any proof or even suspicion of wrongdoing.

Protect Yourself by Going Offshore

One strategy I've used personally is a secretarial service or mail receiving service in a country that's serious about postal privacy, such as Switzerland. To protect the privacy of your international correspondence, have anything remotely confidential that originates outside the US sent to this facility. Trace the route the correspondence will take to make certain it won't go through a US sorting facility.

Have the service scan the correspondence, encrypt it, and place it on a secure encrypted server in Switzerland. Log into the server at your leisure to read your mail.

You can do something similar in the US, if you really care about privacy. Instead of having people send you physical mail, have them scan whatever documents they need to send you and again post them in a secure non-US server.

If someone is sending you a physical product, of course, this strategy won't work. But even here, you can at least reduce some of the surveillance. The most important step is to never have anything shipped to your home. The Postal Service and all private carriers (e.g., FedEx and UPS) share their databases with government agencies. Instead, pick up parcels at a local customer center.

Another precaution is to make online purchases in the name of a company, and not your actual name. You can form a domestic LLC online for under $200, open a bank account, and get a debit card issued in the LLC's name. Pay with the debit card and have whatever goods you order shipped to a local FedEx or UPS office.

You don't even need to show up personally. A lawyer can pick up packages if you give him or her a letter from the company authorizing release of the package.

For even greater privacy, form a foreign LLC, have it open an offshore bank account, and then get a debit card with the LLC's name on it. There will be a domestic record of a debit card transaction in the name of a non-US company, but there will be no way to connect you to a specific US transaction without a fair amount of digging.

Yes, it's a bit more effort this way. But privacy isn't always convenient, nor is it cheap. Only you can decide how much of it you need. And if you do care about it, you'll find many of the tools to protect privacy offshore.

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