“You got a postcard from the University of Richmond Law School yesterday,” my older son told us during his weekly phone call from California. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I answered before the implications of his question had sunk in.
“Why should we?” I said. “Is there a chance in hell you’re going to Richmond?”
Both my boys, whom you might think of as toddlers, since I sometimes do, are graduating from college this spring (the younger one, champing at the bit to get at Life, graduating a year early). Both are heading off to law school in the fall, God help them and us all.
“And you got a letter addressed to ‘The Steinberg Family’ from ‘Edie,'” he continued. “What’s that?”
“It was from Cousin Evie,” my wife, also on the line, corrected him.
I asked to know what is going on, and he explained the United States Postal Service has a new feature, Informed Delivery, where you can receive email images of mail you are slated to receive today, or have received for the past week.
“My name is still associated with your address, so I was able to sign up,” he said.
“This is really creepy,” my wife said.
“It is!” Ross enthused, happily. Suddenly I remember that this was the boy who put a chemical in my glass of milk, causing it to solidify. Who once took a screen shot of my iMac screen, and then contrived for that photo to be displayed on the computer, so nothing I clicked on worked, and it was only when I was at the point of grabbing the computer and hurling it out the window did he laugh and reveal the joke.
Of course I raced to sign up. The terms of service are extensive, as is typical, and include a little speech about privacy:
For over two centuries, the Postal Service has valued Your privacy, and built a brand that customers trust. When using the Service, the information You provide is accessible to the Postal Service, but may also be collected by third parties such as the companies that control the operating systems of the particular application
Why is that not comforting? The place can’t even capitalize correctly. How are they guarding my privacy?
The questions were multiple choice answers about places I’ve lived and, disturbingly, the loan on my car. A dedicated hacker could cut through them like a hot knife through butter. The Postal Service said that is not a problem.
“I have not heard of any issues with it” said Timothy J. Norman, USPS spokesman for the Chicago area.
Norman said the service has been very popular, reaching more than 8 million users.
“This is one of the coolest things we have,” he said “You actually see the images of the mail pieces for that day, in a grayscale.”
How long, I wondered, does the USPS keep those photos? Are they building a database of every letter every American receives?
“I really don’t know how long they’re available,’ Norman said. “I don’t think we would probably keep ’em more than 30 days, if that long.”
Reassurance comes in the fact that it’s the mail: not exactly a font of fascination, as the first email Tuesday telling me of the bounty I’d have waiting in my mailbox at home.
One postcard offering FREE ADMISSION to learn about how “STRESS, HORMONES and HEALTH” can be harnessed to fight belly fat. Another from the Chicago Opera Theater is inviting me to a double bill of Donizetti’s “Il Pigmalione & Rita.” That’s it.
Our veils of privacy are being pulled away one by one. Turns out Amazon has already patented technology so Alexa can overhear a conversation — say, on the mental health of a close relative — and send you advertising for psychiatrists. Given that, I can flip a switch and turn my own damn lights on.
I imagine the benefit people derive from previewing the mail — “Oh look, my Harry & David catalogue is coming!” — is dwarfed by the potential for abuse.
Still, my son, whose capacity for mischief is boundless, seemed pretty excited.
“Now I can know, ‘Oh, Mom got mail from a mystery bank in Guam,'” he taunted. “This is so good for domestic abusers or stalkers.”
“Why did you sign up?” I asked.
“I need to know each piece of mail that comes to the house,” he said, reminding me how, when he lived here, we’d both race to the mailbox to be the first to savor the joy of flipping through the fresh stack of letters and periodicals.
“Now we don’t have that struggle anymore,” he said. “It’s a valuable service.”