The Wall Street Journal ran a story the other day (May 26, 2005) about what various companies, but particularly FedEx, are doing in cooperation with investigations into potential terrorist actions and other things. I shall attempt to report the main points here, without comment or evaluation.
To save verbiage, I'll use a couple of words in a special sense. Demand: to call for information in a way backed by legal sanctions, as in a warrant issued by authority of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution or by such other authority as the Executive or Legislative branch may from time to time invent. Request: to call for information on other grounds, such as friendliness to law enforcement or a possible quid pro quo.
FedEx takes its cooperation very seriously. It has a special computer link to Homeland Security, via which its employees are encouraged to send information on suspicious activities. The program for information gathering is based on the TIPS program which was proposed by John Ashcroft in 2002 but was not put in place.
Fedex responds freely to requests for information. It shares its database on international shipments with Customs and the Border Patrol, not merely upon request, but by simply granting access to the databases. The information includes credit card data, which the government normally has some difficulty getting; in fact, it can't ask for such information except in connection with a criminal investigation.
Sending a package by FedEx involves a contract that gives the company the right to inspect the contents at its sole discretion. In cases of suspicious activity, it uses this power in cooperation with Federal authorities, who lack such authority on their own.
FedEx also has a privately owned police force, formally recognized as a police force by the state of Tennessee, which takes part in regional security planning. It is FedEx policy to look for two-way sharing of information with the government.
The Journal also summarizes the policies of several other organizations.
The United States Postal Service is forbidden by law to open first-class mail (including, I suppose, Priority Mail, which is the same thing for packages) or to divulge shipping or payment information without a proper warrant or court order. Current USPS policy, so far as is known, is to comply with the law.
United Parcel Service likewise provides information only in response to a demand made according to law or regulations.
America On-Line maintains a hot line for law-enforcement requests for subscriber information. It also gives advice on how to word subpoenas.
Western Union cooperates fully in providing information about overseas money transfers.
OnStar, the General Motors emergency system, which necessarily knows where its customers are, considers such data to be confidential; it releases the data only in response to a warrant.
That about wraps up the summary. The conclusions you draw are your own. It may be worth your while to seek out the details in the paper, which is available right now in any public library in America.