USPS: Protecting Your Privacy for Over Two Centuries

May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

You might not know this, but we’re in the middle of Choose Privacy Week, which is an initiative of the American Library Association.

Choose Privacy Week (May 1-7, 2012) is an initiative that invites library users into a national conversation about privacy rights in a digital age.

The right to privacy is a big deal in the field of librarianship.  Working in a public library, I spend a lot of time thinking about privacy issues––protecting users’ privacy, advocating for continued strong privacy practices, providing materials that will help users make informed choices about their privacy, etc.  I also spend a lot of time considering both logical and unexpected ways in which things can be grouped together.  This goes with the territory of librarianship, but it’s also something my brain does naturally.  I thrive on finding points of connection.  Thanks to these factors, my mind managed to work its way around to pondering the intersection of privacy and letter writing.

Based on my gut instinct, I quickly came to this conclusion: when the news is full of stories about how online privacy can only ever be semi-achieved and even that requires constant individual vigilance, it seems that the tried and true pen to paper, tucked inside an envelope, sealed, stamped, and sent is a hands-down winner for sharing your thoughts discretely.

Then, lo and behold, on the first day of Choose Privacy Week, I found myself at the National Postal Museum (check that off my list of Things to Do in 2012!) studying an exhibit panel entitled Freedom of Speech in the Mail.

It turns out that privacy was one of founding principles of the U.S. Postal System.

For anyone with a smidgen of knowledge about the American Colonial times, it will come as no surprise when I say that the original 13 colonies were under British rule.  What you may not know, though, is that the colonial British Post Office was not run with an eye to the privacy of letter-writers.  In fact, it was quite common for agents of the Crown to scrutinize the mail looking for hints of treason.  The wrong words in a letter could result in a death sentence.  Needless to say, this didn’t go over too well with the feisty revolutionary minds of the day, many of whom resorted to engaging private carriers in order to ensure that their personal correspondence and the latest newspapers were received.  In 1774, William Goddard, a printer who had “formed a partnership with Benjamin Franklin to publish the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a paper sympathetic to the revolutionary cause” presented a petition to the Continental Congress (Pope, 2006). He was motivated by a local postmaster who took it upon himself to disrupt Goddard’s mail delivery and prevent him from receiving newspapers containing critical information.  Goddard’s proposal made the case for founding a postal system that would be an alternative to the colonial British Post Office and would be based on the “principles of open communication, freedom from governmental interference, and the guaranteed free exchange of ideas” (Pope, 2006).  Less than a year later, the Constitutional Post was up and running and the foundation of what would become the USPS was in place.

You may be thinking, “But that was centuries ago!”

True.  However, the USPS hasn’t backed away from making privacy central to its operations.  In the Ponemon Institute’s 2007 Privacy Trust Rankings of U.S. Government Agencies, the USPS, for the third year in a row, ranked #1 out of 74 agencies that collect information about individuals.  83% of respondents perceived the USPS as trustworthy when it came to safeguarding citizen’s privacy and personal information.

And so, in celebration of ALA’s excellent initiative and the USPS’s longstanding record on protecting your right to communicate freely and without interference, here’s my advice to you:  Choose Privacy–Write a Letter

International Mailbox Exhibit at the National Postal Museum.
(Off-topic?  Yes!  But still very cool.)

Sources for Info about USPS & Privacy Protection

American Society for Public Administration. (2007, March). 2007 Privacy Trust Rankings of U.S. Government Agencies announced. PA Times, 30(3).   Retrieved April 29, 2012 from MasterFile Premier.

Hentoff, Nat. (n.d.) Case in point: Freedom of speech in the mail.  National Postal Museum exhibit, Washington D.C.  Visited May 1, 2012.

Pope, Nancy. (2006). Goddard’s petition to the Continental Congress [National Postal Museum online exhibit].  Retrieved May 3, 2012 from http://arago.si.edu/index.asp?con=2&cmd=1&id=76935&img=1&pg=1

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