By: +David Herron; Date: Thu Jul 06 2017 17:00:00 GMT-0700 (Pacific Daylight Time)
Today the US Postal Service sent me an email inviting me to sign up with Informed Delivery. The pitch is that the USPS Mobile App will be upgraded to have access to Informed Delivery which is described as "a new, free feature that gives you the ability to see a digital preview of your incoming mail." Conveniently the Postal Service will send out grey-scale scans of the exterior of all pieces of mail arriving at the mailbox, and those scans can be viewed with the Mobile App or can be sent to ones e-mail inbox.
I'm not sure what the value is to me for this service. The big worry is that obviously it means the Postal Service is scanning the outside of every envelope, and what the heck are they doing with those scans? Who else is receiving those scans? The NSA? The FBI? Who?
The service is available at: https://informeddelivery.usps.com/
According to the US Post Office website, Informed Delivery is just what it sounds like: You receive notifications of the exterior of any postal mail heading to your mailbox.
Ponder - How would the Post Office implement this without breaking the bank? They're constantly under threat of insolvency and therefore would not implement an expensive free service on a whim. This means the Post Office is scanning the exterior of all mail. What might they be doing with those scans?
First and most obviously is the scans are used for normal mail delivery. Gone are the days when post office workers in back offices manually routed mail. In todays age, obviously they've developed computerized scanning and automated text recognition to route mail automatically. The Post Office could save a ton of money on personnel costs if nothing else with some good automation of that mail sorting process.
But - the US Postal Service is a government-owned corporation. Therefore would other Government entities want to access that data? And because the Postal Service and the NSA are both US Government, would there be fewer barriers to information sharing?
It's well known that the spy agencies think it is legal to track "envelope" information of mail traversing the system. For example back in 2006 I recorded a few news articles saying the NSA was tracking the phone numbers involved in every phone call -- under the theory that information was equivalent to the envelope in postal mail. http://politics.7gen.com/2006/05/massive-privacy-violation-by-us.html
Under that theory, even though the spy agencies don't peek inside the envelope (or phone call) to record the conversation, they can still build up lots of useful information with the envelope. A single phone call or postal envelope doesn't tell the spy agencies much. But when they collect zillions of phone calls or postal envelopes, they can form a map of who-talks-with-whom.
Not being one to like throwing around unsubstantiated innuendo, let's look for some truth.
This is from the FAQ at https://informeddelivery.usps.com/box/pages/intro/faq
On the one hand it says not to worry because "The Postal Service adheres to the privacy requirements of the Privacy Act established by the federal government which controls when and how the USPS shares personal information and limits the conditions in which that information can be disclosed externally to outside parties." Hurm..... I'm sure that's supposed to make me feel comforted ....
But, the next couple questions concern what happens when the service does the wrong thing. Yes, it's an imperfect system, what elese are we to expect?
Unfortunately there isn't much news coverage of this feature. Going by the news coverage, the service has existed for a couple years meaning I'm only now learning about it due to Informed Delivery coming to the USPS Mobile App. The news coverage that turned up was lightweight about the USPS allowing you to peek in the mailbox so you don't have to trudge all the way to the front door. In other words, American Journalism is failing to look into an obvious potential privacy violation.
Here's a few statements about "privacy requirements of the Privacy Act"
- Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation: https://www.fdic.gov/about/privacy/requirements.html
- West Virginia: http://www.privacy.wv.gov/privacy-program/Pages/PrivacyRequirements.aspx
- Federal Trade Commission: https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/privacy-and-security
- Health and Human Services: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/index.html
- Department of Justice: https://www.justice.gov/opcl/privacy-act-1974
- Food and Drug Administration: https://www.fda.gov/RegulatoryInformation/FOI/PrivacyAct/
It's not worth our time to comprehensively review those pages or the dozens of others that turned up with a simple web search. What we can take from all that is that when the USPS says Informed Delivery "adheres to the privacy requirements of the Privacy Act" it just means the usual sort of US Government information tracking policies. It's been widely reported that the US Government has been inching towards Big Brother for years.
For example back in February 2002 news started circling about the Total Information Awareness System that was later renamed the Terrorist Information Awareness System. When the GW Bush Administration came to office, they hired Admiral Poindexter (the guy convicted for lying to Congress over the Iran/Contra investigation) to bring "data mining" technology to the US Government. The system involved a massive information collection effort and what we'd now call Big Data. See http://politics.7gen.com/2002/02/darpa-information-awareness-office.html
USPS Presentation on Informed Delivery
Collected from - https://www.usps.com/business/pdf/informed-delivery-overview.pdf
Related item of interest - https://www.usps.com/business/pdf/informed-delivery-faqs.pdf
This is what the service does and an example delivery to USPS customers.
This is a map of how the service works. There's a few interesting things to take from this slide.
First: "USPS uses existing processes to gather digital images of the exterior of lettersized mailpieces that are processed through automation equipment." Bingo. The USPS is already tracking images of the exterior of our postal mail. No doubt the primary purpose is to automate mail routing, but we all must be concerned whether there's a secondary Big Brother purpose.
Next: "Mailer interactive campaigns are applied at this step, based on the MID*, or MID and Serial Number range, in the IMb®**." What this means will become clear in a little bit. The slide deck is targeted to the companies that send mass quantities of junk mail.
This says the e-mail deliveries through the Informed Delivery service will contain interspersed advertising images, I think.
Bingo... this slide deck is a pitch to the mass-mail-junk-mail industry on how they can participate in Informed Delivery. The USPS is giving those organizations " the ability to increase their marketing campaign reach with a synchronized physical and digital touch point."