- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The U.S. Postal Service has quietly sought to “immunize” itself from Privacy Act challenges to its address-correction service, a program that gives credit, marketing and data-service providers access to updated name and address information for tens of millions of Americans.

Postal officials say the program helps reduce costly undeliverable mail that can clog up the mail stream, but its failure to obtain consent to sell customers’ information is raising alarm bells from within and outside the agency.

A Postal Service legal memo obtained by The Washington Times proposes pursuing legislation to “immunize the current address correction services from any challenge under the Privacy Act or Section 412.”

The Privacy Act prohibits federal agencies from renting or selling personal information unless specifically authorized by law. Section 412 refers to a provision in federal law that bars the Postal Service from making public names or addresses of postal customers.

“Suggestions have been made that these longstanding services may be inconsistent with current law,” a copy of draft legislation by Postal Service states.

In the legal memo obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act, postal officials wrote that the address-correction services have been “provided for years and are not based on obtaining written consent from customers.”

‘Isolated concerns’

The legislation hasn’t surfaced in Congress, and postal officials say they stand by the current address correction program. In a statement to The Times, the Postal Service defended the program as consistent with the Privacy Act and Section 412.

“There have been isolated concerns by a very few individuals who do not agree with the Postal Service’s position,” Postal Service officials said. “The legislative language proposed was offered to make stronger what the Postal Service already believes is a strong legal position.”

But Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said the Postal Service’s public statements don’t square with the legal memo.

“Obviously you don’t go running to the Hill asking for legislation unless you anticipate problems,” he said. “I think they see trouble.”

The undated legal memo refers to “suggestions” that the address-correction service is inconsistent with the law, but postal officials declined to identify the source of those suggestions. Instead, postal officials said they have heard “isolated concerns from a few individuals in the public.”

“However, it is worth emphasizing that we have received overwhelming popular support for both the MoverSource program and the address correction service,” the Postal Service said in its statement.

MoverSource is a joint initiative between Postal Service and Pitney Bowes subsidiary Imagitas Inc., which is in charge of producing welcome kits sent to people who fill out change-of-address forms. The kits, which come in official Postal Service envelopes, are filled with advertising and move-related coupons. The Postal Service and Imagitas split the ad revenue.

The address-correction service is different. It provides major mailers with access to updated information about customers who have filled out change-of-address forms.

Under the program, credit, marketing and data-service providers pay to be licensed by the Postal Service. Depending on the sort of license - one goes for $175,000 per year - these companies can use the lists internally or provide updated mailing-list services to outside companies, though use is limited to address-correction services.

Defining ‘routine use’

When customers fill out permanent change-of-address forms, the Postal Service provides a privacy statement saying, “We do not disclose your information to anyone, except in accordance with the Privacy Act.”

Disclosure can occur in “limited circumstances,” including to mailers “if already in possession of your name and old mailing address as an address correction service,” the statement says.

Postal officials told The Times in its statement that the address-correction service is a “routine use” of data, meaning it falls within an exception by which disclosure is permitted under the Privacy Act.

Peter P. Swire, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, who served as the Clinton administration’s chief counselor for privacy in the Office of Management and Budget from 1999 until early 2001, said federal law prohibits selling mailing lists without written consent.

“The tricky question is whether the routine use is permitted under the statute,” he added. “I think it’s not clear.”

Officials at the OMB, which issues privacy guidelines to federal agencies, declined to say whether they are looking into the Postal Service’s address-correction program.

“OMB takes Privacy Act compliance very seriously and we work with agencies across the federal government on an ongoing basis to help ensure that we’re getting it right,” OMB spokeswoman Meg Reilly said.

In a November interview with editors and reporters at The Times, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said both the address-correction and MoverSource programs have been vetted by the Postal Service’s attorneys and privacy advisers.

He said the welcome kits are popular with customers, but “we have to make sure we’re covered from a privacy standpoint and don’t have stuff out there that would be a problem. So we’re looking at it, we’re just double-checking to make sure we’re all set.”

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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