News - 'Going postal' takes a new meaning

Now, your letters may be enlisted as more eyes for Big Brother

If a presidential commission has its way, the United States Postal Service would become the United States Postal Snoops.

The President's Commission on the United States Postal Service is recommending that every piece of mail be embedded with a micro tracking device. This would allow our friendly postal authorities — and the folks at Homeland Security, and the folks at the FBI, and the folks at the Forestry Service, I suppose — to monitor our every letter.

Before you fret that this would constitute the grossest invasion of privacy since Ben Franklin was our postmaster general, take solace in the words of the commission in its recent report to Mr. Bush. The report, benignly titled, "Embracing the Future," assures us the purpose of this new procedure would simply be to "enhance" mail service and would represent a "relatively modest concession to ensure [our] safety."

If electronically tracking every piece of my mail so some government snoops can figure out where I am and where every letter I write is at every moment along its journey (as well as to whom it is written) represents a "modest concession" of privacy, Lord help us when these folks decide to implement a "major" concession! If this really is the future of the U.S. mail system, "embracing" the future will be like grabbing onto one slippery, slimy, stinking porcine animal.

These folks, and many folks in the Congress, by the way, are indeed serious. Already the Postal Service has published a proposed rule in the Federal Register — that lovely, humongous compendium of all things bureaucratic — that would start us down this road. Thankfully, the public outcry against the proposal caused the service to rescind it. But don't rest yet. They've promised the rule "will be reissued" in a way that doesn't raise red flags.

The prime breeders of Big Brother at the Postal Service don't appear to be the postal folks themselves. Rather, the "smart stamp" cheerleaders reside largely in the executive branch; you know, those same folks who are giving us the PATRIOT Act, Total Information Awareness and CAPPS II. If I didn't know better, I'd swear retired Adm. John Poindexter, recently cashiered from the Pentagon's DARPA office, had been secretly named postmaster general. If his likeness appears on the first "smart stamp," I'll really begin to worry.

Still, this is no laughing matter. A quick glance at the Postal Commission report indicates why. According to "Embracing the Future's" authors, one of the most serious and vexing problems we Americans face is not being able to get our mail while we're on vacation. (I actually thought one reason you go on vacation is to get away from the mail — you know, all those bills and stuff.) But the report details how wonderfully smart stamps will serve us while we're on vacation.

Their description of a smart-mail universe reads like a fairy tale: "... Midway through its cross-country journey, a piece of mail 'learns' that the recipient is on vacation and the mail piece is re-routed to a different vacation address."

Leaving aside for a moment the question about how the piece of mail "learns" you are on vacation in the first place (maybe it's that sub-cutaneous chip embedded under the skin of your forearm that gives you away), it is interesting that the report talks of mail as living beings, at times using the pronoun "their" to refer not to human recipients or senders of mail, but to the pieces of mail. This truly is weird science.

Advocates of the brave new postal world even envisage "smart" stamp vending machines which, in order to work properly, apparently would require some form of biometric scanning information before a customer could even purchase a stamp. Without that, the stamp would never know who its creator was, and would spend its entire existence — sadly — not knowing where that person or its recipient truly was.

It would be bad enough if just the executive branch were pushing this nonsense. Unfortunately, Congress also is getting into the act. The subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee with jurisdiction over the Postal Service, in another report issued last year, hinted at mandating some form of "unique traceable identifiers" (a more bureaucratic way of saying "smart stamps").

If these two entities — the administration and the appropriators in Congress — get together on this, heaven help us. And, you just know that businesses out there are licking their chops to be a part of a system that can track every bill sent to every customer and, of course, where it is and why it hasn't been paid yet.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr can be reached at bob.barr@creativeloafing.com.

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