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Tracking You Through the Mail

Next week, a special commission created by President Bush will present him with a final report on “articulating a proposed vision for the future of the United States Postal Service.” That vision includes the idea that no person should be able to mail a letter without the USPS and their pals in Homeland Security knowing about it.

According to PostalWatch, the Final Report of the President’s Commission on the United States Postal Service will include the Final Recommendations of a number of Subcommittees, including this gem from the Technology Challenges and Opportunities Subcommittee:

The Subcommittee believes that a more secure system could be built using sender identified mail. The Subcommittee recommends that the Postal Service, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, explore the use of sender identification for every piece of mail, commercial and retail.

And among the other recommendations of the Commission is the maintenance of the monopoly on first-class mail.

Taken together, those two key recommendations mean that this special Presidential Commission is pushing for the legal abolishment of the right to correspond anonymously.

Yet this nation’s very Constitution was founded on anonymous correspondence — the Federalist Papers, which swayed public opinion in favor of its ratification, were authored under the pseudonym “Publius” by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Presumably if those fellows were alive in the Commission’s “vision for the future,” they could not mail their pamphlets without a Homeland-designed mailbox snapping a few pictures and running the images through face-recognition software.

The Commission’s document is extremely vague, of course — the “sender identification” they wish for could take the form of any number of biometric identifiers, or possibly some other scheme. But its implementation will close the circle and end any remaining scraps of privacy in the US mails. For it was four years ago that the USPS announced that it would not deliver to private mailboxes — like those at Mailboxes, Etc. — unless the proprietor collected and delivered to the Postal Service peronal information that USPS itself is not allowed to collect.

When, as per current policy and the Commission’s recommendations, one entity — USPS — has a monopoly on first-class mail and demands its customers forsake any and all claims to privacy, the consumer choice is gutted. Consumers should be able to decide for themselves whether the risk of an “insecure” mail system (though something tells me those Priority Mail guarantees will remain insecure regardless) is worth the cost in privacy. With a legal monopoly and Orwellian policy, the President’s Commission would make that impossible; for this week’s Privacy Villains would have us all scrutinized and tracked “Under the Eagle’s Eye”.

JAMES PLUMMER writes the Privacy Villain of the Week and Privacy Hero of the Month colums for the National Consumer Coalition’s Privacy Group. He ca be reached at: jplummer@consumeralert.org.

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