A government report that urges the U.S. Postal Service to create “smart stamps” to track the identity of people who send mail is eliciting concern from privacy advocates.

The report, released last month by the President’s Commission on the U.S. Postal Service, issued numerous recommendations aimed at reforming the debt-laden agency. One recommendation is that the USPS “aggressively pursue” the development of a so-called intelligent mail system.

Though details remain sketchy, an intelligent mail system would involve using barcodes or special stamps, identifying, at a minimum, the sender, the destination and the class of mail. USPS already offers mail-tracking services to corporate customers. The report proposes a broad expansion of the concept to all mail for national security purposes. It also suggests USPS work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop the system.

Such a system would not only allow the postal service to provide better mail-tracking information to consumers, the report said; it could give law enforcement authorities new investigative tools in the event of a mail-related terrorist attack such as the anthrax-tainted letters that killed five people and sickened more than a dozen others in 2001. The authorities have yet to solve that case.

“Intelligent mail has the potential to improve significantly the security of the nation’s mail stream, particularly if the postal service fully explores whether it is feasible to require every piece of mail to include sender identification, in order to better assure its traceability in the event of foul play,” the report said.

Privacy watchdogs worry, however, that requiring sender identification for all mail presents serious risks to civil liberties.

“We have a long history in this country of anonymous political speech,” said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Any change that removes anonymity from the public mail system is “making a major change to political discourse in this country,” he said.

Such a system could also facilitate expanded government surveillance powers, said Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

For instance, the FBI is already allowed to photocopy the outside of unopened letters and packages sent and received by suspected criminals in order to monitor their communications, Hoofnagle said. An intelligent mail system could make conducting such “mail cover” activity easier, enabling the FBI to build databases tracking communication among people on a broader scale, he noted.

Hoofnagle and Schwartz also questioned the cost and effectiveness of a system that hinges on proving the identity of millions of individual mail senders. Even an overhaul of the entire postal system may not thwart stamp-swipers and identity thieves, they said. “In order to close those holes, you have to move toward a police state,” Hoofnagle said.

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