Post office wants holiday mail to lose personal touch

November 17, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Tired of keeping your Christmas card list up to date? Of addressing all those envelopes by hand?

Uncle Sam wants to do it for you. And that's got some people concerned about the privacy of you and your friends.

The U.S. Postal Service is proposing to keep computer files of holiday card address lists for individuals and businesses to help it handle the enormous volume of envelopes during the holiday season. The substitution of printed and coded labels for handwritten addresses will speed up the sorting of the mail, it says.

A test of the plan starts this Christmas in Akron, Ohio. If it succeeds, it will be expanded nationwide.

Here's how the "Customer Holiday Address List" program is supposed to work: If you give the post office your address list, it will send you a set of mailing labels that you can stick on your envelopes. The labels will carry printed bar codes that automatic mail-sorting machines can "read."

The Postal Service will also keep your list on file so that next year you can delete or add names.

The flip side, say some people, is possible loss of privacy. Law enforcement agencies can look at the files, and they might want to see who is on the mailing list of people under investigation.

"The permanent maintenance of a customer mailing list is a dangerous invasion of privacy," said Representative Bob Wise, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Information.

"It is a threat both to those who send mail using this program and to those who receive it," Mr. Wise said in a letter to Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank.

"Imagine the surprise of an individual who was visited by the FBI because he sent a Christmas card to or received a Christmas card from . . . a target of a criminal investigation," he wrote.

Mr. Wise also noted that many doctors, charities and political advocacy groups sent holiday greeting cards to their patients or supporters. Disclosure of their names could be embarrassing or lead to political and legal problems, he said.

The Postal Service defended its plan.

"Use of this system should have no effect on individual privacy rights," said Stanley Mires, assistant general counsel.

Betty Sheriff, a privacy official in the Postal Service, acknowledged, however, that the address lists could be made available to law enforcement authorities.

She said the holiday address list would "absolutely not" be provided to commercial customers.However, private organizations now can purchase the Postal Service's computerized "national change of address" files, which list the names and addresses of anybody who moves.

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