PolySciFi Blog

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Buying the press a clue on international mail

I've refrained from commenting on the NSA "wiretaps"* brouhaha because I don't know if they're legal or not because I don't know exactly what the program is (I also think that most people who've commented don't have enough insight into the particular program to add anything but noise).

However, the press outrage of the day is just dumb. Here's a Reuters excerpt:
U.S. officials can open personal mail arriving from abroad as part of the fight against terrorism, and do so when they deem it necessary to protect the country, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman said on Monday.

News of the little-known practice [-ed !!??!!] follows revelations that the government approved eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without judicial oversight after the September 11 attacks, which sparked concern from civil liberties advocates and some lawmakers who called for congressional hearings.
Last time I sent a package overseas, I saw the following form - look in the top left of the green box - "May be opened officially"

So a) there's an opening disclaimer on post office forms, b) Customs has always opened mail and packages (with national security always being one of the reasons for opening them), and c) It's not possible to have a functioning Customs office without opening mail/packages.

Since it was apparently news to John Cole of Balloon Juice as well, I'm disinclined to think this is a result of press dishonesty and instead will treat this as a data point in answering the question, "Is our children learning?" ("No, they isn't learning. Is they?").

(*) The best-supported inference on the NSA program I've seen is this post by Orin Kerr where it is speculated that the NSA was engaging in packet sniffing on switches that carry predominately international traffic which would a) make it not wiretapping (real-time, i.e., not recorded), b) explain a lot of curious things written in the press, and c) in my mind, probably make it legal. (IANAL, but it seems equivalent to what Customs does with snail mail - an aside to this aside - Not only do I think it's within Customs' purview to deny virus laden emails and phishing scams from entering the country, sorta like they do with fruits and animals, I think they should implement such a program)

However, I don't have any actual knowledge of the program (unlike what's written on international postal forms), so this footnote is idle speculation and really should only be considered an explanation for why I put "wiretap" in scare quotes.


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