Dangers Among Us

I don’t normally get into commentary with this column, BUT…

I’m sure you’ve all heard about last week’s article in the Wall Street Journal about a purported “nationwide launch” of a new email service from the U.S. Postal Service. According to the report, the agency planned to offer this new service which was designed to help people who have email communicate with those who don’t in September.

Part of the story does appear to be accurate. If you go to the USPS site, you can read about a new service called NetPost Mailing Online, though it’s not clear when it will officially launch.

Here’s how that particular service works: You create a letter, an ad, etc., in a word processing document. (And, yes, the USPS even suggests on its site that this service could be used for advertising.) Then you simply email the file to the Postal Service, along with a list of targeted offline addresses, and it will print and send your document directly to those designated addresses.

The cost is high to create an actual direct mail campaign in this manner (41 cents apiece base); however, it may, in its early stages, achieve wide usage with advertisers due to the assumption that recipients will want to open mail with a return address from the U.S. Postal Service.

Okay, so that’s not too bad. In fact, it may sound downright tempting to lazy letter writers who have dear old (and email-less) Aunt Ednas who always complain they never hear from them.

However, it was also reported that as part of its next round of offline-online offerings, the Postal Service had a database-driven project in the plans. This service would have offered free email to residents of the Postal Service’s 120 million-plus street addresses on file. Those residents who would have signed up for this completely voluntary service would have then received email at their existing email addresses, forwarded from their Postal Service email accounts… OR they could have picked it up from computers at their local post offices, if computers were added to the mix.

Here’s where it got dicey… AND where the obvious controversy originated. The Postal Service would have had both snail mail addresses AND their email address counterparts. Both sets of email addresses, in fact. (Their already existing ones and their shiny new Postal Service ones). Presumably, under this scenario, a marketer could have rented a direct mail list of targeted names, created an email promotion for them, and then sent both the list and the promo to the Postal Service. Then for a to-be-determined fee, the agency would have matched up the offline list to the email addresses on its database and would have deployed yes, by email on the marketer’s behalf. Whoa.

The Postal Service vehemently denies the existence of this service, according to a Schwab newsletter on Friday. However, it DID say that it plans to test an email and printing service and, in fact, has already contracted for vendors in that effort.

But it brings up some good questions, such as how did that story originate? The Wall Street Journal, a credible publication, must have gotten that information from somewhere. And what if although it’s not now a reality it becomes one in the not-too-distant future? Where would permission fall into this scenario? And what would be the implications when a large bureaucratic organization houses and manages a completely self-contained database that merges online with offline personal information?

And what about the possibility that an organization like the U.S. Postal Service who may have strong security, but not necessarily flawless security would build a database with so much desirable information?

If that were to come to fruition, how would we guarantee and I mean 100 percent-no-ifs-ands-or-buts GUARANTEE that some dangerous yet talented hacker wouldn’t access those files? And where would the merging and collecting stop? Would it get to the point where “just email addresses” turns into things like visitor/purchase behavior and stored cookie information and all of that other stuff we’ve all been tip-toeing around?

I realize I’m asking more questions than I have answers for… and the entire topic is moot now, anyway. But I’ll tell ya, when I first read that original report last week, I was terrified. With a database of 120 MILLION people, we ALL should have been terrified. Thank goodness it was all just a rumor.

Or was it?

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