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U.S. Postal Service eyeing technology for 'smarter' mail

But some fear it might end up knowing too much

By Dan Verton
August 7, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- A presidential commission charged with studying ways to make the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) more efficient has recommended that the agency work with the Department of Homeland Security to develop sender identification technology for all U.S. mail.
In a final report released July 31, the President's Commission on the U.S. Postal Service said sender identification technologies such as "personalized stamps" that embed digital identification information would not only improve mail tracking and delivery operations but would also enhance the security of the entire mail system.
But civil liberties groups and some private-sector technologists fear that requiring intelligent mail for all users of the Postal Service is overreacting to the threat of terrorism.
Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy watchdog group, said intelligent mail raises serious First Amendment issues. "It's a free-speech and anonymity problem," he said.
Making intelligent mail mandatory would likely require congressional approval, Tien said, adding that "right now there is no legal requirement for anybody to scribble a return address on an envelope."
Tien also said it's difficult to imagine how the privacy rights of ordinary citizens and whistle-blowers could be guaranteed if the use of intelligent mail was required by law.
Ron Quartel, chairman and CEO of FreightDesk Technologies Inc., a Dunn Loring, Va.-based firm that develops technologies for the shipping industry, said intelligent mail would be unlikely to have much effect on commercial mailers since most commercial transactions are already semipublic. It would, however, have a "huge dampening effect" on the personal use of mail, he said.
The focus on security stems from the 2001 anthrax attacks that took advantage of the anonymity provided by the U.S. mail system to kill or expose workers at the Sun tabloid in Boca Raton, Fla., NBC News headquarters in New York, the Capitol Hill offices of Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and various post offices.
"Intelligent Mail could allow the Postal Service to permit mail-tracking and other in-demand services via a robust Web site that ultimately becomes the equivalent of an always open, full service post office," the commission report states. "Intelligent mail also can significantly improve mail security through enhanced traceability, and could lead to substantial savings through sophisticated, real-time logistics management."
A spokesperson for the USPS said that although the development of intelligent mail is a big issue for the service, the commission report is still under review and it would be premature to discuss future plans.
Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, said intelligent mail was created first as a commercial tool to boost efficiency. But to use it as a homeland security tool raises questions about both effectiveness and privacy. "The anonymity of the mail is something that the Postal Service has been proud of," Schwartz said. "The history of the country is such that we want people to be able to speak anonymously, and taking away [anonymous mail] altogether does not seem to be a good idea."
The USPS in January formed a committee with the help of the private sector to study intelligent-mail technologies and infrastructure requirements and has since established a corporate plan for intelligent-mail implementation. The agency has moved ahead with the program despite privacy concerns by some in Congress, including senior members of the House Government Reform Committee. That committee, shortly after the 2001 anthrax attacks, asked the General Accounting Office to study the implications of intelligent mail.
A spokesman for IBM, one of the many companies working with the USPS on intelligent-mail technologies, declined to comment on the program, citing the sensitivity of homeland security-related technologies.
"There are no obvious technological barriers to the postal commission suggestion," said Quartel. "But is that what we want? Do Americans really want every facet of their lives inventoried by a federal bureaucrat? I don't."

Read more about Privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.

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