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Postal Service Privacy

Top News

  • Coalition Calls for Postal Privacy Reform.As the annual volume of junk mail approaches that of normal, first class missives, Private Citizen and a coalition of privacy groups have called upon legislatorsto reform privacy protections against unwanted commercial postal mail. The groups wrote: "While American residents now enjoy substantial federal protection from telemarketing sales calls, and state protection from a variety of other invasive marketing practices, the U.S. Postal Service has not made significant strides to reduce unwanted junk mail." The groups continue: "To illustrate the environmental, and privacy impact of…one segment of the junk mail industry last year, consider that if each of the 5,340,243,500…trashed credit card mailings weighed just two-thirds of an ounce. The aggregate wasted tonnage of those trashed mailings would exceed the weight of a battle ready NIMITZ Class aircraft carrier." (Jan. 24, 2005)
  • EPIC FOIA Request Shows Postal Machines Take, Store Photos. Documents(pdf 1.9 MB) obtained by EPIC under the Freedom of Information Act show that new Postal Service self-service postage machines take portrait-style photographs of customers and retain them for 30 days on a Windows XP platform. One document reads, "Camera required by FAA. Privacy Office is requiring a notice for customers, advising that photograph may be taken during the transaction." For more information, see the EPIC Postal Service Privacy Page. (Dec. 9, 2004)


The U.S. Postal Service is an independent executive branch agency devoted to delivering mail. The Postal Service handles over 200 billion pieces of mail annually. Operation of the Postal Service raises many privacy issues--from seizure and surveillance of mail, to the identification of mailbox owners, to the problems associated with junk mail. This page details these privacy issues.

To fully understand these issues, it is helpful to note the purposes of the Postal Service, aspects of its history, its statutory authority, and its regulations. In creating the modern mail delivery service, Congress specified that: "The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities." 39 U.S.C. ยง 101(a).

A full history of the Postal Service is beyond the scope of this page. Two online sources for Postal Service history include the official USPS history, and Robert Ellis Smith's Ben Franklin's Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity From Plymouth Rock to the Internet. Smith's book details the shortcomings of private mail delivery services, including the problem of individuals intercepting, reading, and sometimes adding to others' mail. The book also covers the rise of the modern Postal Service, which carried with it different privacy issues. Critics of the modern Postal Service argue that government operation of the mails is inappropriate, and that it "encourages government surveillance of private correspondence."

The Postal Service is organized under Title 39 of the U.S. Code. Its primary regulations are found in Title 39 of the Code of Federal Regulations and the Domestic and International Mail Manuals.

Specific Privacy Issues

Commercial Mail Receiving Agencies, "Mailboxes Etc."

The Private mail box (PMB) is used by many Americans, and has been one of the most effective ways of preserving anonymity. There are around 10,600 Commercial Mail Receiving Agencies in America, and the vast majority of those are small businesses. However, regulations introduced by the USPS in 1999 require those wishing to obtain a private mailbox from a commercial mail receiving agency (CMRA) such as a Mail Boxes Etc. franchisee to supply information that even the USPS themselves are not allowed to collect. If one wishes to use a CMRA they must provide two forms of identification, along with a Form 1583 (Application for Delivery of Mail Through Agent). The CMRA must also keep a copy of the form & identification on site.

Social Security Cards, Credit Cards, and Birth Certificates are unacceptable forms of identification for this purpose. The following are acceptable:

  • Drivers license or state non-drivers card.
  • Armed forces, government, university, or recognized corporate identification card.
  • Passport, alien registration card, or certificate of naturalization.
  • Current lease, mortgage, or deed of trust.
  • Voter or vehicle registration card.
  • Home or vehicle insurance policy.

Sender Identification and Intelligent Mail

A report issued on July 31, 2003 by a Presidential Commission on the Postal service called for the USPS to "explore the use of sender identification for every piece of mail, commercial and retail" as part of a broader plan to introduce Intelligent Mail. Intelligent Mail refers to Postal Service products that can provide information about mailpieces in the system. Intelligent mail is already implemented to a certain degree at USPS, however, the government has not implemented any sender identification component to Intelligent Mail. Postal company Pitney Bowes is a prime supporter of Intelligent Mail, and that company has supported the system, arguing that it can provide data-rich transactional information about senders, recipients, and even the contents of the mail.

Proposals for sender identification will work by integrating into the letter a machine-readable code. This code will identify certain properties relating to the letter. The presidential commission proposed that each piece of mail would carry at a minimum:

  • Identification of the sender.
  • Destination.
  • Class of Mail.

Precisely how sender identification would be implemented is unclear. The suggestion is made that such advanced tracking as allowed by sender identification will help improve national security. This would of course require that each person be assigned their own unique identifier, and that a person engaging in a terrorist act (such as mailing anthrax) would actually use their assigned number. It is planned then to allow this data be stored centrally, and in a rather aspirational manner to allow postal transportation vehicles, local post offices and robust Internet systems communicate with this database to make the delivery of mail more efficient.

In considering these recommendations scant regard was paid to the privacy of those who use the postal system. It was suggested that:

"Requiring all mail to identify its sender would likely have a negligible impact on most users of the Postal Service who readily identify themselves when they send mail and would consider such a requirement a relatively modest concession to ensure their safety and that of the men and women who deliver the nation's mail."

This is of course based on the flawed premise that a person wishing to use the post as an instrument of terror would not be able to circumvent sender identification requirements. Rather than improve the security of the mail it is suggested that sender identification will do the following:

  • Undermine the anonymity of the mail. Those who have a deep desire to remain anonymous, such as narcotics smugglers and terrorists will have the resources to communicate regardless, of any countermeasures put in place by the USPS, but valuable assets to the nation, such as whistle blowers and informers may be discouraged. It will also limit an important tool for those wishing to exercise their constitutional right to free speech. Even more mundane and everyday activities (like sending a anonymous card) will no longer be possible.
  • Destroy the privacy that sealed mail offers. Make it far easier for bodies (like the USPS) to gather vast amounts of information about consumers. It would be easy to find out where people sourced their insurance, got their credit card, mortgage, or what doctors they attended. Since medieval times people have attempted to keep this information private by sealing correspondence with wax, and in more recent times by enclosing confidential information (a part of which very often is the senders identification) within an envelope. This proposal will allow the ability to build an itemized profile of mail sent and received by one law abiding person.
  • Allow more opportunities for criminals to get access to personal data. It is not unheard of for phone companies to have their itemized billing databases compromised. This service, if implemented could provide another target for attack, except one with far more valuable information for identity thieves and common criminals.

It may also be questionable whether sender identification is permissible under Title 39, U.S.C., Section 3623 (d), where it is provided that "The Postal Service shall maintain one or more classes of mail for the transmission of letters sealed against inspection..."

The National Change of Address Service (NCOA) and the Locatable Address Conversion System (LACS)

The National Change of Address Service (NCOA) is administered by the U.S. Postal Service. Groups that subscribe to the NCOA can obtain updates when a current customer makes a permanent change of address request to the Postal Service. This is the one of the primary methods by which companies obtain individuals' addresses after they move. Businesses can purchase the updates for as little as $5 per thousand names. In order to purchase an update, the mailer needs the individual's name and old address. That is, NCOA is an update service, and participants in the system agree not to use the information for purposes other than refreshing their mailing lists.

Twice a month the USPS sends the contents of the NCOA to a number of licensees (currently 18) who then sell the information to thousands of direct marketing companies. A company pays a small amount of money for a license, and the USPS does not gain much revenue from the sale of information to these companies. ($56,000 in 1992.) The Postal Service justifies the service as providing cost savings by reducing the amount of "undeliverable as addressed" (UAA) mail.

One can evade the NCOA by making a "temporary" change of address order. Temporary changes of address are not reported to the NCOA service, and thus are not forwarded to businesses that are attempting to continue sending junk mail. Temporary orders give individuals the ability to forward mail to a new address for a full year.

A similar service used by profilers is the Locatable Address Conversion System (LACS). The LACS is a list of addresses that have been standardized, often because of implementation of local government services. For instance, LACS will link an unspecific address (Route 1 Box 2) to a specific one (122 North Street). There are over four million addresses in the LACS.

A rebranded version of the NCOA is now offered by the USPS. It is now referred to in the direct marketing business as the National Change-of-Address Linkage System Product (NCOALink). While the basic idea is the same, the new system is designed to allow a far greater number of licensees access the NCOA database. This it is claimed will encourage greater participation in the scheme (meaning more junkmail). Eventually this system will replace the original NCOA system. The new license file will cost $175,000, and there will be no limitation on the number of licensees as in the past. NCOALink has security improvements that will prevent mailers from obtaining new address information on individuals unless the mailer has the name and old address.

USPS Subsidizes the Junk Mailers

Junk mailers (the Postal Service refers to junk mail as "Standard Mail," "Direct Mail," or "advertising mail") are major users of the Postal Service, and have as a result, developed a relationship with the agency that has resulted in favorable treatment. Although rates are formally set by the Postal Rate Commission, critics of the Postal Service claim that the agency subsidizes junk mailers by providing discounts for mail delivered in a certain format that is not used by other mailers. The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) claims that if junk mail subsidies were ended, the Postal Service would stand on a stronger financial footing: "The current USPS financial crisis is directly attributable to the $12 billion in postage discounts it gives annually to major mailers and direct mail firms for pre-sorting their mail. The discounts equal significantly more than the costs the Postal Service avoids when it receives presorted mail. The value of this work sharing equals 17 percent of the Postal Service's total revenue and it exceeds the total revenue of most other countries' postal systems."

In an April 2002 letter to Congress, APWU President William Burrus wrote that subsidies to junk mailers were jeopardizing the health of the Postal Service: "...the Postal Rate Commission (PRC) and the Postal Service's Governors recently rubber-stamped the postage rate increases that were proposed by the Postal Service. The rate increase comes at a time when postal revenues are suffering from the terrorist attacks of September 11, the October anthrax attacks and a recession. Nonetheless, the Postal Service is offering approximately $3.8 billion in discounts annually to giant first-class mailers for pre-sorting their mail. These discounts exceed by more than $700 million annually the costs the Postal Service avoids when it processes this mail, thereby subsidizing giant mailers at the expense of ordinary consumers."

In testimony before the Postal Rate Commission in January 2002, former Postal Service Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Michael Reiley argued that discounts to bulk mailers pass on costs to normal mail senders: It is very important to realize that the effect of overly generous discounts can be significant to all First-class mailers. Since the volume of single piece is roughly equal to that of discounted mail, an unjustifiably high discount could make the single piece rate higher than it would otherwise need to be. If this discount reaches two cents per piece above an appropriate level then the single piece rate possibly could be reduced for everyone by a full cent."

The Postal Service claims that junk mail receives cheaper rates for a number of reasons. First, junk mail is delivered in to the agency in bulk, often by the truckload. A minimum of 50 pounds or 200 pieces is required to qualify for junk mail rates. Second, junk mail is pre-sorted, thereby saving processing costs. Third, some mailers "drop ship" their mail, meaning that they deliver it to a Post Office close to the recipients' homes. Fourth, junk mail travels by truck, which is less expensive than air transport. Finally, junk mail gets fewer services. For instance, junk mail is not forwarded or returned to the sender when it cannot be delivered.

Mail Cover

Mail cover is defined as the process by which a nonconsensual record is made of any data appearing on the outside of any class of mail. This allows the law enforcement authorities to copy the front and back of envelopes, without either the senders or recipients knowledge. This information may be obtained in order to:

  • Protect National Security
  • Locate a fugitive
  • Obtain Evidence of commission or attempted commission of a felony
  • Obtain evidence of a violation or attempted violation of a postal statute
  • Assist in the identification of property, proceeds, or assets forfeitable under law

A mail cover may be initiated under the authority of the Chief Postal inspector where

  • A postal inspector requests so on the belief that the mail cover will produce evidence relating to the to the volition of a postal statute
  • Where requested by a law enforcement agency where reasonable grounds are laid out as to its necessity.

Mail cover has been held not to infringe the fourth amendment in United States v. Choate, 576 F.2d 165 (9th Cir. 1978). In that case, the court determined that the mail cover did not violate the right to privacy, freedom of speech or freedom against unreasonable search and seizure because the contents of the mail was not opened, and furthermore that there is no reasonable expectation that such information as that posted on the exterior of the envelope will remain unobserved.

Search Warrants for Mail

First-Class letters and parcels are protected against search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, and, as such, cannot be opened without a search warrant. This applies to mail which originates in the US. State search warrants are not honored under any circumstances, but if the violation of state law is also a violation of federal law the USPS may assist in obtaining a federal search warrant.

In-Person Proofing

In-Person Proofing (IPP) is a means of physically identifying a person at a Post Office before a digital certificate is issued to that person. It is to compliment existing procedures used by authorized Certificate Authorities (CA).

Cooperative Mail Rule

In 2003, the Postal Service proposed changes to the cooperative mail rule that would broaden for-profit mailers' access to discounted rates normally reserved only for charities and non-profits. The new rule removed limitations on for-profit mailers, allowing them to enter into partnerships with charities where discounted mailing rates could be employed.

The new rule presents a number of risks to the public and charities. First, it will increase the amount of junk mail that individuals receive. Second, it allows for-profit mailers to take advantage of the public and charities by charging exorbitant rates for the solicitations. Third, it encourages for-profit mailers to create bogus charities that attract donations simply for the enrichment of the for-profit mailer. Finally, the new rule jeopardizes legitimate charities, because the credibility of their solicitations suffer as a result of the for-profit mailers' activities.

Senator Lieberman (D-CT) and Representatives Waxman (D-CA), Obey (D-WI) and Olver (D-MA) sent a letter to the Postal Service in November 2003, urging the agency to revisit the rule. The Members detailed the case of "Vantage," a commercial mailer that illegally used the nonprofit rates to send 78 million pieces of mail under the pre-2003 regulations. Furthermore, Vantage collected most of the money raised on behalf of the charities. The Members wrote: "According to the government, Vantage received 76% of all money donated to the relevant nonprofit organizations. In one example, over a two-year period, Vantage received approximately 86% of the donated money (Vantage received approximately $20.6 million out of $23.8 million donated)."

Previous Top News

  • USPS Sender ID Notice Withdrawn, Will Be Reissued.The United States Postal Service announcedthat it would withdraw the notice requiring sender identification and reissue it, claiming that the notice, "has caused misunderstanding in some quarters." (Oct 2003)
  • USPS Proposes Mandatory Sender ID for Discounted Mail.United States Postal Service proposed new requirementsfor sender identification for users of "discount" mail rates. Under the system, discount mail senders would have to identify themselves in order to "facilitate investigations into the origin of suspicious mail." The notice cited a reportissued by the President's Commission on the United States Postal Service that recommended a system of "intelligent mail" for the country, a part of which would include sender identification requirements. The Postal Service explained that "requiring sender-identification for discount rate mail is an initial step on the road to intelligent mail." (Oct 2003)
  • Commission Recommends "Intelligent Mail," Requiring Sender Identification.The President's Commission on the Postal Service has recommendedthat the agency collaborate with the Department of Homeland Security to study the development of sender-identification requirements for all mail. A proposed system, called "Intelligent Mail," would include tracking codes to verify who sends and receives mail. The commission cited the system as a way to improve the security of the postal network, as well as a means of enabling businesses and consumers track their mail. Critics, however, warn that eliminating the ability to send anonymous mail could infringe on individual privacy rights. (July 2003)

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