Postal Centers elicit privacy fears

"Electronic Privacy Information Center"

The U.S. Postal Service's Automated Postal Centers, which USPS officials say are a big hit with customers, have elicited an informal complaint from privacy advocates. Members of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public advocacy group, say the new computer kiosks contribute to a loss of citizens' rights to anonymous speech.

EPIC officials criticized the centers' use of digital photography to capture an image of people when they purchase USPS products at the kiosks. "The overall problem is that USPS is systematically eliminating anonymous avenues for communication," said Chris Hoofnagle, EPIC's associate director.

USPS officials said the use of a digital camera is an ordinary security requirement. "This is not an uncommon industry practice when you're using self-service machines to take a photograph of folks as a security precaution," said Zoe Strickland, USPS' chief privacy officer.

Strickland said USPS officials weighed privacy considerations against security precautions as they designed and built the kiosks. "The camera was deemed a requirement," she said, in part to satisfy a Federal Aviation Administration rule.

However, the kiosks have privacy features, including notification that a picture will be taken and a limit on the uses of the digital images and the length of time they can be kept, Strickland said. Images are retained for 30 days.

EPIC officials announced no plans for further action on the privacy issue after USPS officials responded to their request for privacy assessment documentation on the kiosks. EPIC officials posted the documents on their Web site.

The gradual erosion of anonymous means of postal communications is a longstanding concern of privacy advocates and advocates for a democratic society, Hoofnagle said. "This started years ago with the requirement that postal mailbox owners register," he said. "It was expanded greatly with the requirement that letters over 16 ounces be mailed at a station, giving USPS an opportunity to film the mailer."

"On the horizon are the risks of sender-identified mail," Hoofnagle said, a reference to USPS officials' plans for using digital tracking technologies to offer what they call intelligent mail services.

USPS officials have installed 2,500 centers throughout the United States. Dec. 13, the largest holiday shopping day, also produced the highest sales figures at the postal kiosks, Carrie Bornitz, the centers' program manager, said last week. The kiosks, which offer most of the services provided by window clerks during limited hours, are in locations where they are accessible 24 hours a day.

After an evaluation period, some retrofitting of the kiosks may be necessary, said Jim Quirk, a USPS spokesman. "But so far, things are looking good, and we may be deploying more of them," he said.

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