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July 03, 2013

Oh, By the Way, the Government is Taking the "MetaData" off Every Piece of Regualar Paper Mail You Send, Too

All information on exteriors of envelopes -- addressee, return address -- is being photographed and kept for possible future law enforcement purposes.

It's not known how long this information is kept.

This is not really a Fourth Amendment issue per se because the Fourth Amendment does not apply to information or expressions rendered publicly -- and of course, when you place your mail in the hands of a government courier, the addressee and return address are public information. That's why they're on the outside. The mail couldn't function of such information were "private."

Still... it's getting very weird.

Part of this is a technological shift. In the past, we didn't have to worry about these things because practical reality kept government datavores in check. In the past, for example, when all fingerprint analysis was done by human hand, with magnifying glasses and comparisons to old cards on file, there was an inherent cost in manhours that naturally limited such things.

60 years ago, you couldn't say "Well what if they just check everyone's fingerprints against every database?!?!" except as the most far-out hypothetical. 60 years ago, one answer would have been, "As a practical matter, they could never do that, you doofus, so the issue is moot."

But it's not moot anymore, because now the government really can check every fingerprint on file against every other fingerprint on file at a fairly trivial cost in terms of man-hours, and the government really can photograph and save, forever, the exterior of every single envelope put into the US mail.

The old limiting factor of the cost of human labor to do these things is now removed entirely. We didn't have to worry as much about constitutional restraints, or non-constitutional prudential limitations, because there were significant practical restraints such as limited budgets, limited personnel, and basic human laziness (or at least the fact that we need to eat and sleep and otherwise not devote all of our hours to collating, comparing, and storing examplars.)

Now we are in fact presented with a lot of questions, along the lines of "What if they did this for every single citizen for every single public action that citizen conducts?," a question which not only describes the merely possible, but the actual current practice.



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posted by Ace at 02:59 PM

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