& the GII
Do Not Call
This page considers postal privacy.
It covers -
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
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 -
and editing or seizure of letters by members of the
armed forces and by civilians in times of war
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
of books and pamphlets distributed by domestic and international
mail to people seeking information about family planning
of 'offensive' postcards and parcels containing erotica
(books, photographs and other material)
of offers of miracle cures and bogus investment schemes
- the spam of the 1890s or
1930s - and of herbal remedies
of mail sent to/by people in a custodial relationship,
intervention has involved a range of agencies -
Public and private sector entities have examined and interdicted
items to/from their employees via corporate mailrooms.
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
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
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
postcards and parcels
The advent of the postcard posed new questions about writing
styles, privacy and even class. An 1870 newspaper worried
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.
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.
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.
The confidentiality of what is inside letters and other
mail does not necessarily extend to postal service databases
In 1997 for example the US House of Representatives heard
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.
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
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
(a) if posted in Australia, be transmitted through the
... 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.
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
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
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 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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