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|Big Brother's next weapon: Tracking your letters with microchip stamps
Sending an anonymous love letter or an angry note to your congressman? The U.S. Postal Service will soon know who you are.
Beginning with bulk or commercial mail, the Postal Service will require "enhanced sender identification" for all discount-rate mailings, according to the notice published in the Oct. 21 Federal Register. The purpose of identifying senders is to provide a more efficient tracking system, but more importantly, to "facilitate investigations into the origin of suspicious mail."
The Postal Service began to look into updating mailing procedures after the anthrax scares in October 2001 when an unknown person or persons sent several U.S. senators and news organizations envelopes filled with the deadly toxin. Two post office workers died from handling envelopes laced with anthrax.
"This is a first step to make the mail more secure," said Joel Walker, customer service support analyst for the mailing-standards office.
But what has privacy advocates concerned is a report by a presidential commission that recommends the post office develop technology to identify all individual senders, which is directly referenced in the Federal Register notice. The proposed regulations are open for public comment through Nov. 20 to the Postal Service.
"The President's Commission on the United States Postal Service recently recommended the use of sender identification for every piece of mail," the Federal Register stated. "Requiring sender-identification for discount-rate mail is an initial step on the road to intelligent mail."
Also cited in the notice are two congressional committee recommendations urging the Postal Service to explore the concept of sender identification, including the "feasibility of using unique, traceable identifiers applied by the creator of the mailpiece."
"We're not ready to go there yet, but we are trying to make an initial step to make all mail, including discount mail, easily identified as to who the sender is," Mr. Walker said.
"Smart stamps" or personalized stamps with an embedded digital code would identify the sender, destination and class.
In October 2001, a letter was sent to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, from a bogus New Jersey address. In theory, smart stamps would allow authorities to better identify would-be assailants.
"The postal notice itself says this is the first step to identify all senders, so this is not a matter of paranoia, this is reality. The post office is moving towards identification requirements for everyone," said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Mr. Hoofnagle scoffed at the notion identification could prevent crimes such as the anthrax attacks on members of Congress and news media two years ago.
"Anyone resourceful enough to obtain anthrax can get a stamp" without going through the new channels, Mr. Hoofnagle said.
A Treasury Department report from the Mailing Industry Task Force also recommended that "the industry promote development of the 'intelligent' mail piece by collaborating with the Postal Service to implement standards and systems to make every mail piece — including packages — unique and trackable."
"What happens if I buy stamps and you need one, is it legal for me to give it to you?" Mr. Hoofnagle said.
Ari Schwartz, associate director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said intelligent mail can play an important role and improve the mail system.
However, privacy issues must be seriously addressed, and moving forward with the rules on bulk mail could alleviate some concerns, he said.
"There is a right to anonymity in the mail. If you look back in the history of this country, the mail has played an important role in free expression and political speech and anonymous mail has provided that," Mr. Schwartz said.
Capitol Hill staffers dismissed the potential for abuse by politicians who might use the system to track anonymous critics.
"A petty staff member, maybe, but I doubt a member of Congress would do that," said one Senate aide.
Added a senior House staffer: "A politician getting even with someone? Nah, it just saves us the trouble of having to reply to the letter."