Entries Tagged "mail"

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A New Postal Privacy Product

The idea is basically to use indirection to hide physical addresses. You would get a random number to give to your correspondents, and the post office would use that number to determine your real address. No security against government surveillance, but potentially valuable nonetheless.

Here are a bunch of documents.

I honestly have no idea what’s going on. It seems to be something the US government is considering, but it was not proposed by the US Postal Service. This guy is proposing the service.

EDITED TO ADD (10/11): Sai has contacted me and asked that people refrain from linking to or writing about this for now, until he posts some more/better information. I’ll update this post with a new link when he sends it to me.

EDITED TO ADD (10/17): Sai has again contacted me, saying that he has posted the more/better information, and that the one true link for the proposal is here.

Posted on October 9, 2013 at 1:08 PMView Comments

Ricin as a Terrorist Tool

This paper (full paper behind paywall)—from Environment International (2009)—does a good job of separating fact from fiction:

Abstract: In recent years there has been an increased concern regarding the potential use of chemical and biological weapons for mass urban terror. In particular, there are concerns that ricin could be employed as such an agent. This has been reinforced by recent high profile cases involving ricin, and its use during the cold war to assassinate a high profile communist dissident. Nevertheless, despite these events, does it deserve such a reputation? Ricin is clearly toxic, though its level of risk depends on the route of entry. By ingestion, the pathology of ricin is largely restricted to the gastrointestinal tract where it may cause mucosal injuries; with appropriate treatment, most patients will make a full recovery. As an agent of terror, it could be used to contaminate an urban water supply, with the intent of causing lethality in a large urban population. However, a substantial mass of pure ricin powder would be required. Such an exercise would be impossible to achieve covertly and would not guarantee success due to variables such as reticulation management, chlorination, mixing, bacterial degradation and ultra-violet light. By injection, ricin is lethal; however, while parenteral delivery is an ideal route for assassination, it is not realistic for an urban population. Dermal absorption of ricin has not been demonstrated. Ricin is also lethal by inhalation. Low doses can lead to progressive and diffuse pulmonary oedema with associated inflammation and necrosis of the alveolar pneumocytes. However, the risk of toxicity is dependent on the aerodynamic equivalent diameter (AED) of the ricin particles. The AED, which is an indicator of the aerodynamic behaviour of a particle, must be of sufficiently low micron size as to target the human alveoli and thereby cause major toxic effects. To target a large population would also necessitate a quantity of powder in excess of several metric tons. The technical and logistical skills required to formulate such a mass of powder to the required size is beyond the ability of terrorists who typically operate out of a kitchen in a small urban dwelling or in a small ill-equipped laboratory. Ricin as a toxin is deadly but as an agent of bioterror it is unsuitable and therefore does not deserve the press attention and subsequent public alarm that has been created.

This paper lists all known intoxication attempts, including the famous Markov assassination.

Posted on June 14, 2013 at 7:15 AMView Comments

Mail Cover

From a FOIAed Department of Transportation document on investigative techniques:

A “mail cover” is the process by which the U.S. Postal Service records any data appearing on the outside cover of any class of mail, sealed or unsealed, or by which a record is made of the contents of unsealed (second-, third-, or fourth-class) mail matter as allowed by law. This “rnail cover” is done to obtain information in the interest of protecting national security, locating a fugitive, or obtaining evidence of commission or attempted commission of a felony crime, or assist in the identification of property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under law.

Seems to be the paper mail equivalent of a pen register. I’d never heard of the term before.

EDITED TO ADD (5/11): Here is a 2002 NPR interview on mail cover, based on these two articles.

Posted on May 10, 2013 at 6:47 AMView Comments

19th-Century Traffic Analysis

There’s a nice example of traffic analysis in the book No Name, by Wilkie Collins (1862). The attacker, Captain Wragge, needs to know whether a letter has been placed in the mail. He knows who it will have been addressed to if it has been mailed, and with that information, is able to convince the postmaster to tell him that it has, in fact, been mailed:

If she had gone to the admiral’s, no choice would be left him but to follow the coach, to catch the train by which she traveled, and to outstrip her afterward on the drive from the station in Essex to St. Crux. If, on the contrary, she had been contented with writing to her master, it would only be necessary to devise measures for intercepting the letter. The captain decided on going to the post-office, in the first place. Assuming that the housekeeper had written, she would not have left the letter at the mercy of the servant—she would have seen it safely in the letter-box before leaving Aldborough.

“Good-morning,” said the captain, cheerfully addressing the postmaster. “I am Mr. Bygrave of North Shingles. I think you have a letter in the box, addressed to Mr.—?”

The postmaster was a short man, and consequently a man with a proper idea of his own importance. He solemnly checked Captain Wragge in full career.

“When a letter is once posted, sir,” he said, “nobody out of the office has any business with it until it reaches its address.”

The captain was not a man to be daunted, even by a postmaster. A bright idea struck him. He took out his pocketbook, in which Admiral Bartram’s address was written, and returned to the charge.

“Suppose a letter has been wrongly directed by mistake?” he began. “And suppose the writer wants to correct the error after the letter is put into the box?”

“When a letter is once posted, sir,” reiterated the impenetrable local authority, “nobody out of the office touches it on any pretense whatever.”

“Granted, with all my heart,” persisted the captain. “I don’t want to touch it—I only want to explain myself. A lady has posted a letter here, addressed to ‘Noel Vanstone, Esq., Admiral Bartram’s, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh, Essex.’ She wrote in a great hurry, and she is not quite certain whether she added the name of the post-town, ‘Ossory.’ It is of the last importance that the delivery of the letter should not be delayed. What is to hinder your facilitating the post-office work, and obliging a lady, by adding the name of the post-town (if it happens to be left out), with your own hand? I put it to you as a zealous officer, what possible objection can there be to granting my request?”

The postmaster was compelled to acknowledge that there could be no objection, provided nothing but a necessary line was added to the address, provided nobody touched the letter but himself, and provided the precious time of the post-office was not suffered to run to waste. As there happened to be nothing particular to do at that moment, he would readily oblige the lady at Mr. Bygrave’s request.

Captain Wragge watched the postmaster’s hands, as they sorted the letters in the box, with breathless eagerness. Was the letter there? Would the hands of the zealous public servant suddenly stop? Yes! They stopped, and picked out a letter from the rest.

“‘Noel Vanstone, Esquire,’ did you say?” asked the postmaster, keeping the letter in his own hand.

“‘Noel Vanstone, Esquire,'” replied the captain, “‘Admiral Bartram’s, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh.'”

“Ossory, Essex,” chimed in the postmaster, throwing the letter back into the box. “The lady has made no mistake, sir. The address is quite right.”

Nothing but a timely consideration of the heavy debt he owed to appearances prevented Captain Wragge from throwing his tall white hat up in the air as soon as he found the street once more. All further doubt was now at an end. Mrs. Lecount had written to her master—therefore Mrs. Lecount was on her way to Zurich!

Posted on February 19, 2013 at 12:52 PMView Comments

U.S. Post Office to Enable Wholesale Surveillance of Mail

The post office is launching a new barcode on first class mail that will enable the sender to track mail through the system:

With the new bar code, companies will be able to track mail delivery and know when their customers got a bill, solicitation or product, and the Postal Service will have another way of checking that mail is being delivered on time.

Companies also will be given a chance to buy data collected by the post office that will give them insights into how customers respond to advertising and marketing. A company, for instance, can buy a television or newspaper ad to tout a new product, follow up with an announcement in the mail and get a sense of how well the ad is connecting with customers.

So now the government will have a database of who sends mail to whom. Of course, there’s no discussion of this in the news article.

ETA: The plan only applies to commercial mail, like ad mailers and magazines, not to letters that individual people send each other.

Posted on February 21, 2008 at 6:26 AMView Comments

Interesting Bioterrorism Drill

Earlier this month there was a bioterrorism drill in Seattle. Postal carriers delivered dummy packages to “nearly thousands” of people (yes, that’s what the article said; my guess is “nearly a thousand”), testing how the postal system could be used to quickly deliver medications. (Here’s a reaction from a recipient.)

Sure, there are lots of scenarios where this kind of delivery system isn’t good enough, but that’s not the point. In general, I think emergency response is one of the few areas where we need to spend more money. And, in general, I think tests and drills like this are good—how else will we know if the systems will work the way we think they will?

Posted on November 27, 2006 at 1:44 PMView Comments

Man Diverts Mail to Himself

Someone filed change-of-address forms with the post office to divert other peoples’ mail to himself. 170 times.

Postal Service spokeswoman Patricia Licata said a credit card is required for security reasons. “We have systems in place to prevent this type of occurrence,” she said, but declined further comment on the specific case until officials have time to analyze what happened.

Sounds like those systems don’t work very well.

Posted on April 17, 2006 at 12:02 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.