Article © 2004 by John Q. Newman Illustration © 2004 by Nick Bougas

Big Brother Takes Over the Post Office

by John Q. Newman

Sending a letter or a parcel is one of the few things Americans can do in total anonymity.

Sending a letter or a parcel is one of the few things Americans can do in total anonymity. You can write anything you want in a letter, address it, put a stamp on it and mail it from tens of thousands of mailboxes, post offices, or private “postal” businesses. Identification is not required. Unless the mailer or the recipient is the subject of a law enforcement investigation that involves a postal search warrant, their mail will join the tens of millions of other pieces of mail in the mail stream.

For a number of years, larger parcels have had to be mailed in person, because of bomb threats and terrorism, but even this is little more than a formality designed to deter only the most careless or stupid, and dangerous explosive laden parcels below the size threshold can still be mailed without going to the counter.

The Bush Administration's solution is another massive expansion of government surveillance and erosion of Americans' privacy rights.

But all of this may be about to change in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent use of the mails to send anthrax-laden letters that caused the deaths of a few unlucky souls. The Bush Administration's solution is another massive expansion of government surveillance and erosion of Americans' privacy rights, right in line with the tenets of the Patriot Act. So how can the Post Office become Big Brother?

We need to consider what is involved in mailing a letter, because it is these mechanics that make it truly, as of yet, a totally private act. To mail anything you need postage. Postage can be bought any number of places. You can buy postage at your local post office, from private businesses that sell postage, such as private mailbox rental services, some grocery stores, or you can purchase postage online, or through a postage meter. All of these methods, with the exception of the last two – online postage purchase and via a postage meter, leave no trail of the purchaser. You can pay cash for your stamps, and buy them out of a stamp machine in the lobby of a post office or a Wal-mart.

The second part of the mail process is the actual depositing of the item into the mails so it joins the “mailstream”, as postal workers say. Once again you have numerous choices, most offering total anonyomity as to who actually mailed the item. You can mail it at the boxes in the post office, take it to the counter, or mail it in at any of the numerous street level boxes that are on nearly every street corner.

Following their reasoning regarding other everyday activities that terrorists have found useful, the Bush people have decided that new regulations and controls on the citizenry's use of the mails is necessary to stop the “terrorists.”

After the anthrax scare and the general hysteria about mail in 2002 things changed. It already seems a long time ago that we were being warned about what to be on the lookout for in our mail, and that mail should be initially opened with latex gloves in a garage or outside to ensure that no harmful virus particles were in it before bringing it inside the house. But the Bush people had a bigger agenda. Now use of the mails could be linked to terrorism, and following their reasoning regarding other everyday activities that terrorists have found useful, they have decided that new regulations and controls on the citizenry's use of the mails is necessary to stop the “terrorists.”

The Bush strategy centers around making it almost impossible for anyone to use the mails in private.

The Bush strategy centers around making it almost impossible for anyone to use the mails in private. Any item mailed could be traced to the person who mailed it. At first glance this seems to be an almost impossible task. But the reality is far different. It will involve creating a vast new infrastructure of silent electronic surveillance of millions of people and millions of transactions every day. How then, will this actually be done?

The government's plan is to make it impossible to purchase stamps or postage anonymously.

The government's plan is to make it impossible to purchase stamps or postage anonymously. If you can trace when and where the stamp was bought, you can find out who mailed the letter or parcel. This means that stamps, or at a minimum, small groups of stamps must now be encoded with unique markings or numbers that can identify when and where a particular stamp or lot was distributed for sale. This is exactly one of the plans. This already happens when you purchase online postage. A barcode identifies and cancels the postage in the computer once the item is mailed. This prevents a second or third copy of the home printed online postage from being used again.

Stamps would be given barcodes. But this needs to be coupled with an ability to identify who bought the stamp, and this is where the government's thinking becomes even more Orwellian. Right now anyone or any business can resell postage stamps. No records need be kept by third party sellers of postage. But the government could change all of this. The first change would occur with postage sold at post offices.

Postal counters would have cameras above all customer stations, recording the images of all customers making transactions. Stamps and postage destined for sale in post offices would be encoded to identify what post offices sold them. This would also apply to stamps sold in machines in post office lobbies. Let's see how this surveillance system would work.

A woman goes to a local post office in a small town on the Canadian border in Washington state to mail a letter to Washington, DC. She purchases stamps from a machine in the lobby of the post office. Unbeknownst to her, a camera in the machine takes a video image of her as she retrieves her postage from the machine. She then affixes the postage to the letter and drops it in the slot.

A few days later her letter arrives in Washington, DC. Another terrorism alert has been issued, and all mail coming from border towns in the Pacific Northwest going to certain congressional addresses in Washington, DC is being watched, because some “intelligence” indicates terrorist groups in nearby Canadian cities may send biological agents via the mails to certain congressional representatives. The congressman whom the woman has written happens to be on the list, and her letter gets picked out of the mail stream for scrutiny.

The FBI runs the stamp's barcode through the post office database. This quickly identifies when and where the stamp was sold. Now the local post office retrieves the film from the stamp vending machine identifying the purchaser. This is then enhanced and an attempt is made to identify the woman, or at least make a determination if she needs to be investigated further.

The government might decide to restrict where stamps can be sold, or require that private businesses that sell stamps can only do so if an image of the purchaser is maintained for a certain period of time.

You might be thinking that all of this can still be avoided by simply purchasing your stamps at third party outlets like grocery stores, etc. But the government has already thought about that. They might decide to restrict where stamps can be sold, or require that private businesses that sell stamps can only do so if an image of the purchaser is maintained for a certain period of time. This is not so far fetched, because many supermarket chains and convenience store chains already have surveillance cameras over their customer sales counters. Freestanding stamp machines outside of post offices would have cameras in them just like ATM machines do.

And just like that, all Americans' private use of the mail is gone! Now how many terrorists might be caught this way? Very few I would think. Just offhand, one easy way to defeat a system such as this is to simply wear a disguise or use a stand-in. It is sort of like the money laundering rules that were enacted in the 1980's to catch “drug dealers” exporting their ill gotten gain. One of these rules is that the purchase of $3000 or more of bearer financial instruments – such as traveler's checks or money orders must be reported to the government. The “drug dealers” simply purchase money orders or travelers checks under this amount. Nearly all of the reporting forms the government receives under these regulations concern the transactions of ordinary Americans.

The problem with this line of logic is that almost every activity that people engage in can also be used by “terrorists.”

The same will be true if the government and Post Office go through with this misguided mess. We will achieve little in added security against terrorists and lose a great deal more of what little privacy Americans still have left. The problem with this line of logic is that almost every activity people engage in can also be used by “terrorists.”

Where does it stop?

Think about this. In the course of the day, most people will talk on the telephone, travel by bus, train or plane, stay in a hotel, enter a public building, etc. All of these activities have been done by terrorists. So do we create a surveillance network around all of these activities as well? The terrorists used cameras and camera film to case their targets. Maybe the next item that needs to be placed under surveillance is photographic supplies? Where does it stop?

John Q. Newman is the author of The I.D. Master, Identity Theft, The ID Forger, The Heavy Duty New Identity, Understanding U.S. Identity Documents, Be Your Own Dick, Credit Power! and numerous articles.

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