Marchand: Government snooping undermines case for postal banking

There’s no shortage of (bad) ideas to reform the United States Postal Service (USPS). Unfortunately, many of these proposals merit a “return to sender” label.

One oft-discussed example is postal banking, which has repeatedly been suggested by lawmakers such as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and even President Joe Biden. Proponents continue to call for the USPS to take up banking even amid reports that the agency is inappropriately snooping on Americans’ social media accounts. And, privacy hawks should be more alarmed at the idea of government banking as the Biden administration proposes intrusive Internal Revenue Service (IRS) monitoring of Americans’ banking activities. Lawmakers need to confront a government run amok rather than calling for federal banking.

Through successive Congresses, advocates of postal banking have attached different rhetoric to their proposals. For example, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Oh.) wants “to help hardworking Americans” through the pandemic by giving them access to free bank accounts at their local Post Office. Given that there are plenty of companies offering no-fee bank accounts with no minimum deposit requirements, it is unclear how postal banking would help these struggling Americans.

The drawbacks of postal banking, though, extend far beyond superfluousness.

The USPS has a disturbing track record of spying on Americans and unwittingly allowing criminals to also snoop around private information. In April 2021, Yahoo News reported that the agency runs an investigation unit known as the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) which sounds more like a CIA op than a postal division. According to the news outlet, “[t]he work involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what the document describes as ‘inflammatory’ postings and then sharing that information across government agencies.” As if that isn’t creepy enough, the agency uses facial recognition software during internet searches “to help identify unknown targets in an investigation or locate additional social media accounts for known individuals.”

Even before revelations of postal spying became public, it was long known that America’s mail carrier didn’t exactly prioritize privacy. In 2018, a cybersecurity expert found that security vulnerabilities on the USPS’ website left the data of 60 million users exposed to hackers. This included all sorts of personal information such as account numbers, street addresses, phone numbers, and mailing campaign data. Just four years before that, a hack exposed the data of 800,000 postal employees and 2.9 million consumer service inquiry records.

And, private data is less safe in government hands. A recent proposal by the Biden administration would force financial institutions to annually report inflows and outflows from personal and business accounts provided that inflows and outflows total at least $600 annually. Alternatively, a bank account could get a reprieve if its fair market value was below $600. The good news is that there’s plenty of opposition to this disturbing proposal from lawmakers, businesses, and watchdog groups such as the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. Even if this proposal is never implemented in full form, the administration may nonetheless monitor all accounts within its reach. That portfolio could expand significantly if postal banking becomes the law of the land. And between IRS snooping, postal surveillance, and federal web and security concerns, Americans have every right to be concerned.

Government surveillance is rarely benign. Federal snooping opened the door to harassment of civil rights activists back in the 1960s and enables virtual peeping Toms in the present day. Lawmakers should keep the government from expanding its activities and getting its hands on even more information. Public servants must maintain a united front against federal authorities snooping on Americans’ private data and question the use of tools such as AI-powered software even for ostensibly “official” business.

A proactive effort is also needed to keep essential activities such as banking out of federal reach. There is simply too much at stake to give the USPS – or any federal agency – a window into Americans’ finances.

Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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