Implications of Electronic Mail and Message Systems for the U.S. Postal Service Page: 80
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80 Implications of Electronic Mail and Message Systems for the U.S. Postal Service
to the information contained on the envelope
of a letter can be secured by convincing desig
nated postal officials that the "mail cover"
as this access is called is needed to locate a
fugitive, to obtain evidence of a crime, or to
protect the national security. According to
USPS, the number of mail covers is declining
and the amount of mail that comes under a
mail cover is very small.
The privacy protection afforded to mail con
tent and addressee addressor information
passed through a telecommunication system
is less clearly established. First, it does not ap
pear that the postal statutes apply in full
measure to information when it is in electronic
form, perhaps even if the electronic system is
operated by or for USPS and/or if the informa
tion is ultimately to be printed out and deliv
ered as first class mail. This is because of a
distinction between information in tangible or
corporeal form and information that exists in
"incorporeal" form. It is only certain that the
postal statutes apply when the letter is a tan
Electronic communication is afforded a
measure of protection by other statutes, but
the degree of protection is presently somewhat
less than that afforded by the postal statutes.
Further, the application of these other statutes
is confused. Section 605 of the Communica
tions Act of 1934 prohibits the unauthorized
disclosure of any communication by wire or
radio. However, the enforcement of legal pro
tections is more difficult when mail is in elec
tronic form than in physical form and under
the direct supervision and control of USPS.
It seems clear that the postal privacy laws
and regulations would apply when an elec
tronic message is printed out in hardcopy form
at a postal facility, or printed out elsewhere
and deposited into the USPS mainstream. The
hardcopy output when delivered over postal
routes would remain fully protected as long
as it remains in the mainstream. Thus, the
physical delivery of hardcopy output and the
printing and enveloping of the EMS output
at postal facilities would be protected.
However, the telecommunication portion of
the EMS service when provided by private
firms appears to be subject only to the Com-rn
munications Act and not to the Postal Reorga
nization Act. Therefore, for services like
E COM, unless the electronic input of mes
sages to USPS were considered to be an inte
gral part of the service and under USPS juris
diction, there would seem to be no obvious
basis for applicability of the Postal Act.
On the other hand, where USPS provides
the telecommunication (as well as the printing,
enveloping, and delivery), the electronic por
tion of a Generation II service could conceiv
ably be protected. USPS notes that the "ques
tion of whether these (postal) laws would apply
to the electronic portion of any electronic mail
services offered by the Postal Service has nev
er been authoritatively tested, " but finds that
"there is little in the laws, however, to sug
gest that they would not."4 In other words,
according to USPS the electronic signals ap
parently could be construed to represent mail
in postal custody even during transmission
over the telecommunication portion of a postal
EMS service. However, some independent pri
vacy analysts dispute this interpretation and
believe that the postal laws do not apply to
the telecommunication portion of an electronic
With respect to security, legal safeguards
may offer less than total protection if message
contents can be intercepted by third parties
with little risk of detection. Thus, security
measures are intended to safeguard messages
transmitted through electronic systems to pro
tect against eavesdropping. At the present
time, it is left to the telecommunication car
riers to determine the degree of physical and
electronic protection to be provided. Some car
riers offer the user the option of encrypting
data, and it maybe that a market or a require
ment for such protected communication will
2"USPS memorandum, "Mail Privacy," op. cit., pp. 5 6.
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United States. Congress. Office of Technology Assessment. Implications of Electronic Mail and Message Systems for the U.S. Postal Service, report, August 1982; [Washington D.C.]. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc39480/m1/86/?rotate=90: accessed February 24, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.