NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Privacy And Express Delivery Services

October 12, 2000

The government's criminal justice agencies are in a tug-of-war with large parcel delivery services such as FedEx and United Parcel Service -- and even the U.S. Postal Service -- over personal privacy issues. The shippers won't give the government carte blanche to open and search parcels for illegal drugs, although such services have become a favorite means for dealers to transport drugs.

The conflict highlights a broader debate about privacy and law enforcement, say observers.

  • Telecommunications companies, Internet service providers, banks and other institutions amass huge electronic databases about their customers' activities.
  • "Carnivore," the Federal Bureau of Investigation's new software system for performing court-ordered wiretaps at Internet Service Providers, has prompted strong criticism from privacy advocates.
  • The big parcel carriers, particularly FedEx and UPS, operate elaborate digital information systems that compile data about all the packages they carry -- in all about 8 percent of the country's economic output at any one moment.

The carriers point out that they do have systems to detect drug shipments. And while they are reluctant to talk in detail about their procedures, UPS in fact trains its 68,000 drivers to look out for suspicious packages.

But UPS, for instance, issued new guidelines in 1998 that required police to get a search warrant or subpoena to search any suspicious item, to make appointments to search for drug packages and to stay out of the way of UPS employees. And the U.S. Postal Service still won't let outside law-enforcement officials inspect outbound international mail.

Source: Rick Brooks, "Issue of Police Access to Express Parcels Is No Open-and-Shut Case," Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2000.


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