A report studying ways to make the US Postal Service more efficient has recommended that the agency work with the Department of Homeland Security to develop sender identification technology for all US mail.
In a final report, the president's commission on the US Postal Service said sender identification technologies such as "personalised stamps" that embed digital identification information would not only improve mail tracking and delivery operations, but would also enhance the security of the entire mail system.
But civil liberties groups and some private-sector technologists fear that requiring intelligent mail for all users of the postal service is over-reacting to the threat of terrorism.
Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog group, said intelligent mail raises serious issues. "It's a free-speech and anonymity problem," he said.
Making intelligent mail mandatory would probably require congressional approval, Tien said, adding that "right now there is no legal requirement for anybody to scribble a return address on an envelope".
Tien also said it would be difficult to imagine how the privacy rights of ordinary citizens and whistle-blowers could be guaranteed if the use of intelligent mail was required by law.
Ron Quartel, chairman and chief executive officer of FreightDesk Technologies, a firm that develops technologies for the shipping industry, said intelligent mail would be unlikely to have much effect on commercial mailers since most commercial transactions are already semi-public.
It would, however, have a "huge dampening effect" on the personal use of mail, he added.
The focus on security stems from the 2001 anthrax attacks that took advantage of the anonymity provided by the US mail system to kill or expose workers at NBC News headquarters, the Capitol Hill offices and various post offices.
"Intelligent mail could allow the postal service to permit mail-tracking and other in-demand services via a robust website that ultimately becomes the equivalent of an always open, full service post office," the commission report states.
"Intelligent mail also can significantly improve mail security through enhanced traceability, and could lead to substantial savings through sophisticated, real-time logistics management."
A spokesperson for the Postal Service said that although the development of intelligent mail is a big issue for the service, the commission report is still under review and it would be premature to discuss future plans.
Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said intelligent mail was created first as a commercial tool to boost efficiency. But to use it as a homeland security tool raises questions about both effectiveness and privacy.
"The anonymity of the mail is something that the Postal Service has been proud of," Schwartz said. "The history of the country is such that we want people to be able to speak anonymously, and taking away [anonymous mail] altogether does not seem to be a good idea."
Dan Verton writes for Computerworld