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October 22nd, 2017

Insight

Does the Postal Service protect your privacy?

Ann McFeatters

By Ann McFeatters

Published Nov. 3, 2014

There are a few givens about mail: It's not much fun anymore — even grandmothers remembering your birthday know about direct deposit; everybody likes the mail carrier, who waves to you whether you have flu, chicken pox or Ebola; everybody wants Saturday deliveries.

Oh yes. Forever stamps — what are those all about? If you keep dozens of stamps issued years ago, you'll pay a little less to mail a letter today. But if you are like most people, you buy a few stamps and then post your letters.

But the big news about the U.S. Postal Service is that it is monitoring our mail. Incompetently and intrusively.

According to a "surveillance audit" done by the postal inspector general (a person of great power but no gun), which the sleuths at The New York Times uncovered, nearly 50,000 requests from law enforcement officials for mail monitoring were approved last year. Often, no reason was given. Sometimes there wasn't even a written request.

Naturally, this stems from the excesses of the Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks. I can hear your sighs. Well, whatever. They already read our emails and listen to our phones. Of course, they check our mail.

Sadly, most of our mail isn't all that interesting any more. It's the same bills, flyers, magazines, catalogues, advertising circulars and appeals for money we got last week and will get again next week and the week after that. Etc. Etc. Etc. Right now we're all getting piles of election mail but apparently that's not a crime and the government already knows about it.

Does the government think the terrorists write each other about their plans? "Hey, Ahmed, we're all set for that bombing thing we talked about."

So many Americans get gun magazines, those can't possibly be of any use to the authorities.

But the authorities, who make the rules, say they find gold mines of information by reading addresses and such, learning about financial irregularities, pornography and fraud, among other criminal acts. Apparently, they are not supposed to hold envelopes up to the light or steam them open without a warrant. We must have faith they wouldn't do that.

The Times found, possibly unsurprisingly, that the incompetence of the Post Office caused it to process law enforcement requests far too late (terrorists and creepy neighbors had long moved on) or gave the same tracking number to different requests.

It gets even better. The Postal Service posted the audit concluding that its incompetence could hamper legitimate investigations and even "harm the Postal Service's brand" on its own website! Who could make this up!

It may not surprise you that the Postal Service says it doesn't have enough money because so many people are using the Internet and calling each other instead of mailing letters. (And Amazon hasn't even started using drones to deliver its goods yet.)

So the Postal Service keeps seeking higher prices for stamps and mailing stuff. Letters now cost 49 cents to mail, and in September the cost of mailing priority packages went up. The Postal Services hopes to raise $2 billion more a year from higher prices.

While most Americans don't find out they are being monitored, some do. An Arizona woman who criticized the immigration policies of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been found guilty of racial profiling and openly touts unfair treatment of immigrants, found Arpaio was given information about her mail by the Postal Service. Claiming the monitoring damaged her business, she sued the county and won.

Did you know that the Postal Service uses a mail imaging program to photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail sent in the United States? Do you suppose real people have to check all those images? Talk about bad jobs! On the other hand, just monitoring the mail of any average American household would be tedious enough.

Not to worry. This is the official response: "The U.S. Postal Service will continue to ensure the sanctity and privacy of the U.S. Mail and protect the safety of its employees and customers." Whew!

Concerned about its "brand," the Postal Service undoubtedly soon will start its national advertising campaign about mailing those holiday cards and packages early. Don't fret about carefully wrapping them. The Postal Service will make that task moot.

Comment by clicking here.

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.


Previously:


10/27/14: Police intervention replacing traditional discipline in schools

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