The Washington Times

'Smart stamps' next in war on terrorism
By Audrey Hudson
Published October 26, 2003

    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
    Mr. Hoofnagle scoffed at the notion identification could prevent crimes
such as the anthrax attacks on members of Congress and news media two years
    "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
    "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."

Copyright  2003 News World Communications,                  Inc. All
rights reserved.
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