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Postal ID plan creates privacy fears

A government report that urges the U.S. Postal Service to create "smart stamps" to track senders' identities draws fire from privacy advocates.

A government report that urges the U.S. Postal Service to create "smart stamps" to track the identity of people who send mail is eliciting concern from privacy advocates.

The report, released last month by the President's Commission on the U.S. Postal Service, issued numerous recommendations aimed at reforming the debt-laden agency. One recommendation is that the USPS "aggressively pursue" the development of a so-called intelligent mail system.

Though details remain sketchy, an intelligent mail system would involve using barcodes or special stamps, identifying, at a minimum, the sender, the destination and the class of mail. USPS already offers mail-tracking services to corporate customers. The report proposes a broad expansion of the concept to all mail for national security purposes. It also suggests USPS work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop the system.

Such a system would not only allow the postal service to provide better mail-tracking information to consumers, the report said; it could give law enforcement authorities new investigative tools in the event of a mail-related terrorist attack such as the anthrax-tainted letters that killed five people and sickened more than a dozen others in 2001. The authorities have yet to solve that case.

"Intelligent mail has the potential to improve significantly the security of the nation's mail stream, particularly if the postal service fully explores whether it is feasible to require every piece of mail to include sender identification, in order to better assure its traceability in the event of foul play," the report said.

Privacy watchdogs worry, however, that requiring sender identification for all mail presents serious risks to civil liberties.

"We have a long history in this country of anonymous political speech," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Any change that removes anonymity from the public mail system is "making a major change to political discourse in this country," he said.

Such a system could also facilitate expanded government surveillance powers, said Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

For instance, the FBI is already allowed to photocopy the outside of unopened letters and packages sent and received by suspected criminals in order to monitor their communications, Hoofnagle said. An intelligent mail system could make conducting such "mail cover" activity easier, enabling the FBI to build databases tracking communication among people on a broader scale, he noted.

Hoofnagle and Schwartz also questioned the cost and effectiveness of a system that hinges on proving the identity of millions of individual mail senders. Even an overhaul of the entire postal system may not thwart stamp-swipers and identity thieves, they said. "In order to close those holes, you have to move toward a police state," Hoofnagle said.

The commission's report notes briefly that "issues of privacy should, of course, be noted and balanced with the value of enhanced safety." A representative of the commission wasn't immediately available to explain how the postal service might actually strike such a balance.

A USPS representative said the agency is still reviewing the report and declined to comment on its recommendations. However, the USPS already has been investigating intelligent mail technology for at least two years. It made development of the system part of a "transformation plan" it issued last year.

USPS has also assigned its chief privacy officer, Zoe Strickland, to set up a working group to examine and incorporate privacy considerations into intelligent mail programs, according to a document on the agency's Web site.

The commission that released the report is overseen by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and was established by an executive order from President Bush last year. It?s led by Harry Pearce, chairman of Hughes Electronics, a subsidiary of General Motors, and James Johnson, vice chairman of Perseus, an investment banking firm.

Major high-tech companies, including Canon, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Pitney Bowes, Symbol Technologies and Stamps.com, are pushing the Postal Service to adopt intelligent mail systems. Each participates in a special committee on intelligent mail run by the Mailing Industry Task Force, a cross-industry group formed in 2001 with the support of Postmaster General John Potter.