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section heading icon     postal privacy

This page considers postal privacy.

It covers -

section marker icon     introduction

Postal privacy - centred on fulfilment of expectations that the content of correspondence and parcel mail will not be examined, copied or divulged during transmission from the sender to the intended recipient - is taken for granted by most Australians and by ordinary people in many other countries.

It has been characterised as a foundation of civil society and of modern commerce. It has been contrasted with the perceived lack of privacy in much online communication.

However, there is no absolute right of privacy in correspondence or in items carried by official postal networks and by private sector surrogates (for example international and domestic express courier services). Postal privacy has often been contested or undermined. It highlights questions about censorship, free speech and social control.

A range of government agencies have traditionally examined the content of letters and parcels, on occasion destroyed postal items or edited content, and sought to track who is sending/receiving items.

Examples of such intervention are -

  • scrutiny and editing or seizure of letters by members of the armed forces and by civilians in times of war
  • illegal or merely covert surveillance of correspondence at other times, by intelligence agencies such as ASIO and by state/national police forces, against targests such as the International Workers of the World, Martin Luther King, the Communist Party of Australia, Linus Pauling and Bertrand Russell
  • interdiction of books and pamphlets distributed by domestic and international mail to people seeking information about family planning
  • interdiction of 'offensive' postcards and parcels containing erotica (books, photographs and other material)
  • interdiction of offers of miracle cures and bogus investment schemes - the spam of the 1890s or 1930s - and of herbal remedies
  • examination of mail sent to/by people in a custodial relationship, notably prisoners

That intervention has involved a range of agencies -

  • customs
  • police
  • intelligence services
  • armed forces
  • prisons

Public and private sector entities have examined and interdicted items to/from their employees via corporate mailrooms.

section marker icon     expectations

Notions of postal privacy illustrate the range of legal frameworks, practice and community expectations that are evident elsewhere in this guide.

In considering expectations about online privacy a point of reference is provided by the postal system. (The evolution of that system is discussed elsewhere on this site in a separate note.)

Delivery of correspondence prior to the democratisation of mail systems in the 1850s could be haphazard and expensive, with correspondents assuming that their letters or other communications might be surveiled or detained in transit by government agents or couriers.

Most appear to have also assumed that much correspondence might be passed from hand to hand once it reached the intended recipient or - as discussed in Bernhard Siegert's Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System (Stanford: Stanford Uni Press 1997) and William Decker's Epistolary Practices: Letter Writing in America before Telecommunications (Chapel Hill: Uni of North Carolina Press 1998) - merely read aloud for an audience wider than that recipient.

Private interception of personal letters was broadly restricted from the mid nineteenth-century (typically under a national criminal code or postal legislation), with restrictions for unauthorised examination of mail by postal service staff/agents. One restriction in the current Australian legislation is here. Those regimes encompassed surveillance by government officials for law enforcement purposes.

That surveillance has continued, with works such as Philip Stenning's Postal Security and Mail Opening: A Review of the Law (Toronto: Centre of Criminology, Uni of Toronto 1981) and Howard Robinson's The British Post Office: A History (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1948) noting opening of correspondence and parcels on the grounds of national security, fraud, drug trafficking and censorship.

section marker icon     letters

Susan Whyman's 2000 paper Postal Censorship in England 1635-1844 quotes an 1844 journalist as stating

When a man puts a letter into the post-office he confidently believes … the communications he makes to his family and friends will not be read, either by Postmaster-General, or penny postman, or Secretary of State, and that no human being will venture to break a seal which … has been regarded as sacred as the door of his own private residence

As the preceding paragraphs suggest, authorities before and after that year were active in inspecting and intercepting communications via the mails during peace and war. Early Victorian confidence about the sacrosanct nature of postal privacy was misplaced.

section marker icon     postcards and parcels

The advent of the postcard posed new questions about writing styles, privacy and even class. An 1870 newspaper worried about the

absurdity of writing private information on an open piece of card-board, that might be read by half a dozen persons before it reached its destination.

Others fretted that postal employees and servants would waste time reading the postcards that passed through their hands, concerns noted in Richard Carline's Pictures in the Post: the Story of the Picture Postcard (London: Gordon Fraser 1971) and Frank Staff's The Picture Postcard and its Origins (London: Lutterworth 1979).

Etiquette books accordingly warned, in a precursor of contemporary advice about email, that correspondents should not write anything unfit for a journalist, parent or partner.

section marker icon     contemporary practice

The 2006 national Postal Accountability & Enhancement Act in the US featured a presidential signing statement asserting the executive's power to open first-class mail (technically "an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection") without a warrant. The statement reinforced existing letter-opening power under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and complemented traditional mail monitoring under 'mail cover' initiatives.

Mail cover monitoring gained publicity through the 1976 report of the Church Committee, the US Senate investigation of illegal intelligence gathering as part of the Watergate scandal. It involves recording - whether directly by intelligence personnel or by postal staff - of information on the outside of an envelope or package. That information might include both the recipient and sender's name and address, with use of digital imaging, traditional photography or photocopying. Monitoring does not involve a warrant or notification to the sender and recipient.

Illegal mail-opening by the FBI and CIA in New York City (the 'HT Lingual' program) is reported to have involved opening, phographing and in some instances destruction of over 215,000 communications prior to 1973.

section marker icon     postal databases

The confidentiality of what is inside letters and other mail does not necessarily extend to postal service databases about addresses.

In 1997 for example the US House of Representatives heard that

Few people are aware that when they tell the Postal Service about an address change, the Postal Service makes the information public through a program called National Change of Address [NCOA]. NCOA has about two dozen licensees - including many large direct mail companies - who receive all new addresses and sell address correction services to mailers. If you give your new address to the Postal Service, it will be distributed to thousands of mailers. People always ask 'How did they get my new address?'. The answer may be that it came from the Postal Service. People who want their mail forwarded - and who doesn't - have no choice. File a change of address notice and your name and new address will be sold.

In Australia the Australia Post Postal Address File (PAF) - for sale to a marketer near you - is drawn from the "core addressing database, the National Address File (NAF)" and is promoted as "one of the most accurate and comprehensive address reference databases in Australia".

section marker icon     legal frameworks

Most governments have turned away from overtly political intervention but are still active in suppressing obscene material sent by mail. Some postal services also suppress particular types of correspondence and publications.

Section 30E of the federal Crimes Act 1914 in Australia for example provides that

No book, periodical, pamphlet, handbill, poster or newspaper issued by or on behalf or in the interests of any unlawful association shall:
(a) if posted in Australia, be transmitted through the post

... Any book, periodical, pamphlet, handbill, poster or newspaper posted in Australia, the transmission of which would be a contravention of this Act, shall be forfeited to the Commonwealth and shall be destroyed or disposed of as provided in the regulations in force under the Postal Services Act 1975.

The US Postal Inspection Service reported around 187 arrests and 184 convictions for obscene material via the post in 1996 (down from 253 arrests and 259 convictions in 1995), out of some 680 million items delivered to 145 million addresses on an average day. Australia similarly detained large quantities of 419 scam letters from overseas in the 1980s.

section marker icon     courier services

Since the 1860s people in advanced economies have usually conceptualised 'mail' as correspondence or other items delivered by a government agency with a statutory monopoly and subject to legislation specific to the particular agency. Postal privacy centred on the activity of officials or their agents, as many postal networks made some use of part-time staff from the private sector. Unauthorised tracking, reading and copying of correspondence (or appropriation of postcards and parcels, apparently more common) was usually treated as an offence against the state rather than against the sender or recipient of the particular postal item.

The deregulatory zeitgeist of the 1980s and 1990s saw the erosion of monopoly provisions in many regimes, with organisations and individuals using nongovernment courier services for bulk delivery and for urgent transfer of single items. That activity was not subject to traditional regulatory frameworks, ie implicit and explicit privacy protection under postal legislation and codes of practice.

Privacy protection instead centred on contractual agreements between senders and service providers, uneasily supplemented by statute and common law (eg regarding confidentiality). Although there is an expectation that the service provider will not peruse or copy the contents of envelopes, satchels and pallets it is common for statements of Terms and Conditions to waive consumer rights regarding contact details for the recipient and sender.

Global courier companies have built up substantial databases that

a) feature names, addresses, landline and mobile numbers and credit card or bank account numbers

b) in principle could provide information about relationships and traffic flows (eg x sent 3 satchels to y and 2 satchels to z on 11 March, y sent 1 satchel to x and 4 satchels to z)

Access to such databases occurs across jurisdictions. Restrictions on access to databases and vetting of personel do not appear to be particularly stringent.

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version of January 2007
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