Some days, after a short walk to the mailbox, it seems junk mail is the only thing keeping the United States Postal Service in business.
For years, the cash-strapped agency has provided the addresses of customers to direct-mail marketers, an apparent violation of the federal Privacy Act.
Yet, anyone who has ever filled out an official change-of-address form with the post office receives an official-looking change-of-address confirmation letter with the words “verification required” on it, but the envelope is mostly stuffed with ads and coupons.
Federal agencies aren’t allowed to sell or rent personal information such as names and addresses under the federal Privacy Act, but the USPS just signed a 10-year contract with a Massachusetts company, Imagitas, giving it exclusive rights to manage its change-of-address process. Imagitas sells ads to major retailers, then mails packets stuffed with ads to millions of homes along with the change-of-address letter.
The USPS and Imagitas call the arrangement perfectly legal, and would not reveal financial details of their contract.
Privacy experts blast the arrangement.
“The intent [of the Privacy Act] is to allow citizens control over how their information is used when collected by government agencies,” said John Verdi, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington in the Times article. “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.”
The USPS program also seems to violate what sort of advertising material can be sent to residents. Ads are supposed to be related only to moving, and “social, political, religious” ads are prohibited.
Yet, the Times found a moving packet that included ads for address labels that included passages from the Bible and another stating “What the World Needs is Jesus.”