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Postal Service Pursues 'Intelligent Mail' Despite Privacy Concerns

Critics decry use in antiterror efforts

By Dan Verton
August 11, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- A presidential commission tasked with studying ways to make the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) more efficient has recommended that it work with the Department of Homeland Security to develop sender identification technology for all U.S. mail.


In its 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 USPS tracking and delivery operations, but would also enhance the security of the mail system.


But civil liberties groups and even some private-sector technologists fear that requiring what's being called "intelligent mail" for all users of the postal system is overreacting to the terrorism threat.


Ron Quartel, CEO of FreightDesk Technologies Inc., a Dunn Loring, Va.-based company that develops technologies for the shipping industry, said intelligent mail wouldn't likely have much impact on commercial mailers because most commercial transactions are already semipublic. It would, however, have a "huge dampening effect" on the personal use of mail, he said.


"There are no obvious technological barriers to the postal commission suggestion," said Quartel. "But do Americans really want every facet of their lives inventoried by a federal bureaucrat? I don't."


The focus on security stems from the 2001 anthrax attacks that took advantage of the anonymity of the mail system.


The USPS in January formed a committee with the help of the private sector to begin studying intelligent-mail technologies and infrastructure requirements and has since established a corporate plan for intelligent-mail implementation. That plan includes analysis of IT infrastructure upgrades, such as server consolidation, that are necessary to begin the program. However, it is unclear if the USPS plan envisions the mandatory use of intelligent mail for all USPS customers as the commission recommended. A spokesman for the USPS said the commission report is still under review and it would be premature to discuss future USPS plans.


However, the USPS intends to award a contract in November for mobile data collection devices that could serve as intelligent mail scanners.


Ari Schwartz, associate director of The Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, said intelligent mail was created as a commercial tool to boost efficiency. But to use it as a homeland security tool raises legitimate privacy concerns, Schwartz said. "The anonymity of the mail is something that the Postal Service has been proud of," he 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."
















Like this Canada Post sample, intelligent mail would incorporate data-rich, machine-readable markers to make each piece unique and trackable.
Like this Canada Post sample, intelligent mail would incorporate data-rich, machine-readable markers to make each piece unique and trackable.
Source: Pitney Bowes


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