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Postal Service’s ‘welcome kit’ raises privacy concerns
It might have been the first piece of mail you got after your recent move. And if you’re still unpacking, look for it. You can’t miss it. It’s the “welcome kit” from the U.S. Postal Service — stuffed into the mailboxes of tens of millions of Americans who have filled out change-of-address forms.
The change-of-address confirmation letter comes in an official-looking USPS envelope with the words “verification required” and “do not discard,” but it contains mostly ads and coupons from companies selling cellphone service, insurance, home security systems, appliances, mattresses, bottled water, banking services, electronics and other move-related products and services.
“Double bonus! Free use of a dispenser,” one ad for bottled water declares.
While these welcome kits may provide a targeted marketing opportunity for advertisers and much-needed revenue for the USPS, federal agencies aren’t allowed to sell or rent personal information such as names and addresses under the federal Privacy Act.
For years, the USPS has given a Massachusetts company, Imagitas, exclusive rights to manage its change-of-address process, called MoverSource. As part of the deal, which was based on an unsolicited proposal sent to the USPS in the 1990s, the company sells advertising to major retailers. The ads then are sent to millions of homes along with the change-of-address letter.
For retailers, it’s a one-of-a-kind marketing tool because the ads will be included with official USPS correspondence almost certain to be opened and not tossed into the trash. But the arrangement, which USPS and Imagitas call perfectly legal, raises serious concerns among privacy analysts who question how using personal name and address information for marketing purposes squares with USPS and federal privacy rules.
“This fails to live up to the standards that Congress set up when it passed the Privacy Act,” said John Verdi, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “The intent is to allow citizens control over how their information is used when collected by government agencies.
“In this case, you have a federal agency collecting information for one purpose, forwarding mail, and using it for a wholly different purpose, direct marketing.”
Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, added that while USPS is in dire need of revenue, “Obviously we as a privacy organization are going to take issue with any revenue schemes that could infringe on the privacy rights of postal customers.”
The Postal Service, in a statement to The Washington Times, defended the program.
“This program allows postal customers who are moving to change their address with ease while also receiving access to move-related special offers and information that will make their move a more pleasant and rewarding experience,” USPS said.
“We believe this program, which is provided through an innovative public/private partnership, is well within the Postal Service’s legal authority. The Postal Service does not sell or rent name and address information.”
The welcome kit contains contact information for local government resources, as well as a number to call if mail isn’t being forwarded, but most of the material inside consists of advertising.
The Postal Service declined to respond to other questions about the program, including whether the USPS general counsel’s office has ruled on the legality of the program and what federal statute permits the practice.
Pitney Bowes, which owns Imagitas, called the change-of-address program a “model public-private partnership” that has helped reduce postal operating costs by “millions of dollars a year while connecting countless Americans to valuable discounts from local businesses,” according to a statement provided to The Times.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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