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Informed delivery??

Back in April, the U.S. Postal Service rolled out a new feature called “Informed Delivery.” If you sign up for it, then each morning you’ll receive an email from the postal service with a scanned grayscale image of each piece of mail that is to be delivered to you that day.

I wasn’t aware of this until I picked up a promotional leaflet about it while I was at the post office today. My first reaction had to do with privacy. Obviously they’re taking pictures of every single piece of mail that passes through the post office.

After a little Googling, I learned that the post office has been taking pictures of all the mail since the 1990s. It’s part of the address-scanning and automatic sorting process. But just think what they can do with that. Not only do they have pictures of all the mail, but they also can cross-reference all the addresses and feed a database that documents who knows whom, and who does business with whom. In other words, there is no private way of communicating with anyone anymore — not by telephone, not through email, and not through the post office. You can be sure that it’s all in a database somewhere, indexed, cross-referenced and retained.

Privacy questions aside, what might Informed Delivery be good for? I live about a quarter of a mile from my mailbox. It actually would be nice to know in advance what, if anything, is in the mailbox before I go out to retrieve the mail. I don’t necessarily go to the mailbox every day. But yeah, I signed up for it.

In its promotional material on Informed Delivery, the postal service says that they hope it will make the postal service seem more relevant to millenials, since millenials’ lives apparently revolve around their smartphones. And apparently, for those who have signed up for the service, it’s popular. The postal service says that almost 80 percent of the people who receive the daily emails look at them. (You do know, don’t you, how businesses can tell whether you opened a piece of mail?)

It seems the postal service will also try to use it for marketing. Companies that send mail will be able to pay the postal service for little ads that will be displayed in the daily emails, when something the company has mailed is scheduled to be delivered that day. Direct marketers are trying hard to figure out how to leverage that.

In any case, now we know that someone has pictures of all the mail we’ve received since sometime in the 1990s. We can assume that the mail can be searched by name and address, and we can assume that they can build lists of everybody we’ve ever sent mail to or received mail from. We also should assume that the mail can be cross-referenced to telephone calls and emails. Keep in mind that, as you drive each day, particularly in urban and suburban areas, your license plate is frequently scanned by roadway cameras, and thus your car can be tracked. Your cell phone is a tracking device. And of course they have, or at least have access to, a database of credit card transactions. What you do with your computer is tracked.

It is better to be aware of these things than not to be aware. And I think it’s better to monitor the ways we’re monitored than not to. Normally all that stuff is stored, and ignored, in vast databases. But when they want to build a dossier on someone, just think how much they’d know.

Here’s a thought experiment. If you wanted to communicate with someone at a distance in a way that could not be monitored and that would not leave a record, would you be able to do that? If so, how?


I got my first Informed Delivery email this morning. Here’s what it looks like — a DVD from Netflix’s DVD division, and what appears to be an invitation to an elementary school reunion. It’s kind of cool, actually, because now I know that I need to go up to the mailbox today and retrieve the DVD.


  1. Chenda wrote:

    Pidgeon post is all I can think of 🙂 Or physically hiding a message on a bus or train for collection at the other end…

    Friday, July 7, 2017 at 6:58 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    I thought of pigeons, too. 🙂

    But I also think that I could do it with radio, as a ham radio operator, by discreetly violating FCC regulations.

    It is not legal to encrypt transmissions in the amateur radio service. However, by using certain low-power digital modes such as WSPR or JT65, which can be received and decoded only by computers connected to radio receivers, encrypted transmissions, if carefully executed, would be unlikely to be intercepted or policed, I think. Transmission might be slow, but that would not really be a problem.

    In my novels, Phaedrus, who is in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, regularly uses this method to communicate with a source in Ireland.

    Friday, July 7, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  3. Henry wrote:

    I have been using this service for a month. I really don’t need to know whats in my mail box, and I was curious how the service worked. I didn’t know they have been scanning for so long, but it makes sense because they have ben providing tracking for a long time

    Saturday, July 8, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

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