Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Informed Delivery service gives you, and distant snoops, a glance at your mail


     "You got a postcard from the University of Richmond Law School yesterday," my older son told us during his weekly phone call from California. "Why didn't you tell me?"
     I answered before the implications of his question had sunk in.
     "Why should we?" I said. "Is there a chance in hell you're going to Richmond?"
     Both my boys, whom you might think of as toddlers, since I sometimes do, are graduating from college this spring (the younger one, champing at the bit to get at Life, graduating a year early). Both are heading off to law school in the fall, God help them and us all.
     "And you got a letter addressed to 'The Steinberg Family' from 'Edie,'" he continued. "What's that?"
     "It was from Cousin Evie," my wife, also on the line, corrected him.
     I asked to know what is going on, and he explained the United States Postal Service has a new feature, Informed Delivery, where you can receive email images of mail you are slated to receive today, or have received for the past week.
     "My name is still associated with your address, so I was able to sign up," he said.
     "This is really creepy," my wife said.
     "It is!" Ross enthused, happily. Suddenly I remember that this was the boy who put a chemical in my glass of milk, causing it to solidify. Who once took a screen shot of my iMac screen, and then contrived for that photo to be displayed on the computer, so nothing I clicked on worked, and it was only when I was at the point of grabbing the computer and hurling it out the window did he laugh and reveal the joke.
     Of course I raced to sign up. The terms of service are extensive, as is typical, and include a little speech about privacy:
For over two centuries, the Postal Service has valued Your privacy, and built a brand that customers trust. When using the Service, the information You provide is accessible to the Postal Service, but may also be collected by third parties such as the companies that control the operating systems of the particular application
     Why is that not comforting? The place can't even capitalize correctly. How are they guarding my privacy?
     The questions were multiple choice answers about places I've lived and, disturbingly, the loan on my car. A dedicated hacker could cut through them like a hot knife through butter. The Postal Service said that is not a problem.
     "I have not heard of any issues with it" said Timothy J. Norman, USPS spokesman for the Chicago area.
     Norman said the service has been very popular, reaching more than 8 million users.
     "This is one of the coolest things we have," he said "You actually see the images of the mail pieces for that day, in a grayscale."
     How long, I wondered, does the USPS keep those photos? Are they building a database of every letter every American receives?
     "I really don't know how long they're available,' Norman said. "I don't think we would probably keep 'em more than 30 days, if that long."
     Reassurance comes in the fact that it's the mail: not exactly a font of fascination, as the first email Tuesday telling me of the bounty I'd have waiting in my mailbox at home.
     One postcard offering FREE ADMISSION to learn about how "STRESS, HORMONES and HEALTH" can be harnessed to fight belly fat. Another from the Chicago Opera Theater is inviting me to a double bill of Donizetti's "Il Pigmalione & Rita." That's it.
     Our veils of privacy are being pulled away one by one. Turns out Amazon has already patented technology so Alexa can overhear a conversation—say, on the mental health of a close relative - and send you advertising for psychiatrists. Given that, I can flip a switch and turn my own damn lights on.
     I imagine the benefit people derive from previewing the mail —"Oh look, my Harry & David catalogue is coming!"— is dwarfed by the potential for abuse.

     Still, my son, whose capacity for mischief is boundless, seemed pretty excited.
     "Now I can know, 'Oh, Mom got mail from a mystery bank in Guam,'" he taunted. "This is so good for domestic abusers or stalkers."
     "Why did you sign up?" I asked.
     "I need to know each piece of mail that comes to the house," he said, reminding me how, when he lived here, we'd both race to the mailbox to be the first to savor the joy of flipping through the fresh stack of letters and periodicals.   
     "Now we don't have that struggle anymore," he said. "It's a valuable service."


  1. You do realize, that the Postal Service is spying on everything we get in the mail?
    They're actually doing this in the name of "National Security", but it's still an invasion of privacy!

  2. Can I ask where the photo atop this post - a pickup truck watched over by a giant eye artwork - comes from?

    1. Noticed while walking down Broadway in the lovely little town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Related somehow to an artist, I imagine. I have a second, related photo I'll add.

  3. Just received my invite to the post office program Neil describes. The only reason I can think of to sign up would be if I thought someone might steal my physical mail. And I'm not yet at that stage of paranoia.

    By the way, serves Neil right to be pranked by his son; after all, he did write a book celebrating pranks and pranksters. Quite a funny tome actually.


  4. Your son seems more than willing, and almost eager, to give up and forego any shred of privacy that still exists in this culture. Nearly all the Millennials I see seem to want to do the same. I think it mostly has to do with their growing up with invasive computer technology, electronic snooping and spying, and their addiction (there's no other word for it) to their electronic toys and their phones and all their other "devices." They are perfectly okay with "sharing" everything they think and do and participate in with anybody and everybody on the planet. That, at least to me, is madness. It's like throwing your keys on the sidewalk in front of your house and not expecting some evil-doer to pick them up and begin using them. Or putting a sign in your front yard that says "We're in Europe for a month. Open house. Come on in."

    I am not into today's "sharing" culture and never have been, but I probably got minuses on my report cards for not working and playing well with others, either. I think a whole lot of Early Boomers like me "share" my strong desire to maintain what little privacy we still possess. Once it's gone, nothing else is left. You may as well strip naked and go for a long leisurely stroll around your neighborhood, and let it all hang out until somebody starts grabbing at it.

    1. I don't know, Griz, I think it's more likely that Ross is just needleing dear old dad. It sounds like a power-trip. It's about control. Ask Neil about Monopoly. 😂

    2. "I am not into today's 'sharing' culture and never have been"

      From one frequent, anonymous, occasionally off-topic EGD commenter to another, you coulda fooled me! ; )

    3. Sharing stories and personal experiences and personal anecdotes is one thing. It's called being a raconteur. Sharing personal information--names, addresses, birthdates, life history, job history,background information--all the data that Facebook and other entities have stolen--is another. That's called being foolish. Perhaps that's a bit harsh, but most of the time I call it like I see it.

  5. No mention of fees, is this service free? If so will it remain so? What's in it for the USPS? Remember when you paid Ma Bell five bucks a month for caller ID? They were taking five bucks from me to hide my number from you. Somehow I think this mail preview thing has sprung from the same well.

    1. My guess is that it's something they do anyway, to keep track of what mail is supposed to be delivered, just in case it is not. They've got a record of what reached a certain point, that it went out on the street, and if someone complains he didn't get his mail, they can figure out where it got lost. Some bright young lad or lassie suggested that the customers be offered a chance to be involved and they have been. If enough people choose to use the service, chances are they'll eventually charge for it. Why not?


    2. What? No conspiracy? I like the way you think.


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