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Protect our postal privacy

By Troy Felvor
web posted May 6, 2002

The federal government has had an abysmal privacy record, and the United States Postal System is no exception.

With its "Under the Eagle's Eye" program, the USPS believes it has a duty to force its employees to report so-called "suspicious" transactions to law enforcement. The Post Office's training manual states, "It is better to report many legitimate transactions that seem suspicious than let one illegal one slip through." While most details of the program are secret, what qualifies as suspicious activity is almost always legitimate activity, even by its own account. Some details have come to light. This program assumes someone buying a money order over $3000 is suspicious enough to be reported to the federal government. In addition, if someone buys several large money orders under this limit, the postal employee is also required to report it.

These regulations disproportionately target poor minorities who conduct their finances without the aid of the banking system. If Citibank or the Chase Manhattan forced this segment to justify such small sums, Jesse Jackson would demand billions in reparations from our financial system. The Feds deserve no special pass to ignore the laws they created. Laws good enough for our citizens are certainly good enough for our public servants.

The Postal Service should focus on improving its shoddy mail delivery, not tracking innocent customers with no suspicion of criminal activity. "Under the Eagle's Eye" is an un-American program that presumes guilt and looks for truth later. Free people should not be treated like criminals in everyday transactions. and the American people deserve far better privacy protection than they receive.

The National Change of Address Database is also a terrible miscarriage of privacy that facilitates marketing abuse and identity fraud. Direct marketers have easy access to this database. They can quickly use it find the new address of anyone who takes the time and care to fill out one of these cards at any post office. This database guarantees people in addition to the few items they wish to receive from their previous residences, unwanted mail will also have a beacon to find them wherever they relocate in this country. Also, given the insecurity of personal mailboxes, these change of address forms create ample opportunity for identity fraud. All that is needed to forward mail is name and address, and a thief can have anyone's mail forwarded to another location if he steals the confirmation notice from victim's mailbox.

The change of address process has many risks unknown to the consumer. The United States Postal Service should be more forthcoming about disclosing the dangers in the current process, and this agency must begin working vigorously to develop better methods for consumers to obtain their misdirected mail.

The USPS also actively stifles tax-paying businesses with its regulatory authority, and consumers pay the price in lost privacy. The Postal Service requires that all Commercial Mail Receiving Agencies (CMRAs) offering private mailbox rentals to collect confidential information from their customers and furnish to the Postal Service. The USPS itself is not permitted to collect this information, and this is a blatant attempt to drive out competitors providing the public a valuable service. These CMRAs such as Mail Boxes, Etc. allow a customer to receive US mail, FedEX, UPS, Airborne Express, and others all in one location at hours of the customers' choosing.

The USPS used claims of fraud at these Commercial Receiving Agencies as a pretext to bully value-adding competitors so it can protect it lucrative revenues from postal mail boxes. Consumers have voted with their feet, and they value the services these agencies provide. Small business should not have to choose between service or privacy. Competitive bullying is no more pleasant when perpetrated by state run businesses. Why aren't the Microsoft foes protesting the USPS?

The United States Postal Service should begin to act like a private company and either protect customers' privacy or we should get a choice. Taking customers for granted is something private business cannot survive doing for long, and it is time for the post office to stop acting like a government agency and more like a consumer friendly operation. It should not be permitted to function like a private corporation when it wishes to market itself and like a government agency when it snoops on its customers, raises rates to cover its management fiascoes, or bullies its competitors.

This massive bureaucracy uses its special status as a Government Sponsored Enterprise to have the worst of both the private and public sector worlds. One can only imagine the management quagmire in an organization with nearly three times as many employees as General Motors coupled with the lack of accountability of a Bureau of Motor Vehicles or the Internal Revenue Service.

We trust private concerns to grow and distribute our food, build our homes, and produce supersonic passenger jets. Companies traded on the NASDAQ can precisely manufacture Pentium 4 microprocessors and GPS satellites, but some people make the ludicrous argument the private mail delivery is simply impossible. Only an unaccountable government bureaucracy would charge the same price to mail your electric water bill as a letter from Portland to Miami. This type of bureaucratic organizational culture has only one answer to all of its shortcomings: rate increases.

Consumer concerns are forgotten because no one is punished for ignoring them. Consumers care about privacy, and with so many other competing communications methods, the USPS must protect privacy or "Go Private" in more ways than one.

Troy Felvor is Coalition Coordinator for the Coalition for Constitutional Liberties, a project of the Center for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

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