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 Mail Tracking System Raises Privacy Fears

By Brian Krebs
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2003; 1:33 PM

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A presidential commission proposal to use tracking codes to verify who
 sends and receives mail through the U.S. Postal Service is getting a chilly
 reception from privacy advocates who say it could violate civil liberties.
 The Postal Service began considering the "Intelligent Mail" idea several
 years ago as a way to help its commercial customers, such as credit card
 companies and direct marketers, get more information on when and if
 their mail reaches intended recipients.

The idea is similar to what private shipping companies like United Parcel Service and Federal Express already do as part of their everyday business operations — simply labeling everything they deliver with a bar code and monitoring the mail’s location in the delivery process.

Intelligent Mail for the public Postal Service took on a new urgency after the anthrax mail scare in 2001, when the government started looking for ways to improve the security of the mail network.

The President’s Commission on the Postal Service last week recommended that the independent agency work with the Department of Homeland Security to study the development of sender-identification requirements for all mail.

The Postal Service estimates that it delivers about 670 million pieces of mail to more than 138 million addresses daily, leading to concerns among law enforcement and government officials that it is too easy to use the system for criminal or terrorist activity.

The commission said the Intelligent Mail could bolster security, as well as let consumers track the progress of anything they send. The latter has been identified as a top consumer demand in the commission’s independent surveys.

It also proposed that the Postal Service sell vanity stamps that would let customers use personalized images or business logos on their stamps. They would contain unique sender identification codes, and cost more than regular stamps, the commission suggested.

Critics warned that there is too much of a threat to Americans’ privacy rights if Intelligent Mail is applied to all mail.

"You have to question the Big Brother aspect of the government being able to document who is writing who," said Rick Merritt, executive director of the Virginia Beach-based advocacy group PostalWatch. "There will be some serious privacy concerns if it becomes mandatory that all mail be sender identified."

The proposal contradicts the Postal Service’s cherished notion of anonymous correspondence, said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C.

"There is a rich history in this country around the concept of anonymous mail that goes back to the Federalist Papers," Schwartz said, referring to the documents anonymously authored by the nation’s founding fathers which helped sway public opinion in favor of ratifying the Constitution.

"There are way too many unknowns about expanding this idea beyond its original scope, including who would have access to the information, and what this would mean for tracking individuals in the future," Schwartz said. "We just haven’t dealt with those questions yet."

"Banning anonymous speech through the mail would be a major revolution," said Peter Swire, former chief privacy officer during the Clinton administration, now a law professor at Ohio State University.

Zoe Strickland, the Postal Service’s chief privacy officer, declined to discuss specifics of the report, citing an ongoing internal review of the recommendations.

"Privacy is a major value with us, and we will make sure those values are integrated into any program, including Intelligent Mail," Strickland said.

The commission did not say exactly how much the program would cost, nor what the privacy impact would be, focusing instead on how it would make it more difficult for criminals to work via mail. It noted that Intelligent Mail would be expensive, but could save at least $2 billion each year, the amount that the Postal Service spends trying to redirect mail that arrives at outdated addresses.

"The greatest inconvenience, most certainly, would be to those who use the mail system for unlawful purposes, since such a move would hand law enforcement a powerful new tool to identify and prevent such abuse," the commission said.

Richard M. Smith, a Boston-based security and privacy consultant, said a mandatory Intelligent Mail system would be too expensive and invasive.

"The notion that this proposal would somehow be able to solve the problem of people doing bad things through the mail is ludicrous," Smith said. "The idea that the way we get secure is to identify people all the time is just wrongheaded."

Federal Express, which uses bar codes to track shipments, has cooperated with the Homeland Security Department in the past, said spokeswoman Kristin Krause. Krause declined to provide further details, but said that FedEx can verify the identity of its customers through credit card transactions, except when the senders pay cash.