WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Postal Service takes pictures of every piece of mail processed in the United States — 160 billion last year — and keeps them on hand for up to a month.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said the photos of the exterior of mail pieces are used primarily for the sorting process, but they are available for law enforcement, if requested.
The photos have been used “a couple of times” by to trace letters in criminal cases, Donahoe told the AP on Thursday, most recently involving ricin-laced letters sent to President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“We don’t snoop on customers,” said Donahoe, adding that there’s no big database of the images because they are kept on nearly 200 machines at processing facilities across the country. Each machine retains only the images of the mail it processes.
“It’s done by machine, so there’s no central area where any of this information would be,” he said. “It’s extremely expensive to keep pictures of billions of pieces of mail. So there’s no need for us to do that.”
The images are generally stored for between a week and 30 days and then disposed of, he said. Keeping the images for those periods may be necessary to ensure delivery accuracy, for forwarding mail or making sure that the proper postage was paid, he said.
“Law enforcement has requested a couple of times if there’s any way we could figure out where something came from,” he said. “And we’ve done a little bit of that in the ricin attacks.”
The automated mail tracking program was created after the deadly anthrax attacks in 2001 so the Postal Service could more easily track hazardous substances and keep people safe, Donahoe said.