Uncle Sam could become "Uncle Spam" if the government follows through with plans for creating an "official US email box" for every address in America, say industry executives briefed on the proposal.
The ruckus began earlier this week, when the US Postal Service (USPS) disclosed that it was exploring the email idea.
The government would use the email addresses to send driver's licence renewal forms, tax documents and other materials that would normally be sent by snail mail. Americans would visit two mailboxes every day -- the ones outside their homes and the ones inside their computers, said deputy postmaster general John M Nolan. Not everyone's greeting the idea with open arms, however.
David McClure -- who attended USPS briefings on the plan in June, as executive director of the United States Internet Industry Association -- said he was told bluntly that postal officials might let marketing materials accompany some of the emails, as a way of helping fund the programme.
McClure said he was shocked to hear Nolan say that the same emails "could have a commercial marketing potential for mass mailers".
"Simply stated, the service could be made to [send] marketing messages ... within email messages," McClure said he was told.
"How does the USPS make money off this? They make it available to mass mailers," McClure said. "The US Postal Service is sitting on top of a gold mine."
Postal spokeswoman Sue Brennan said the program is still in its infancy, and that many things will change about it. Mass mailers would be able to retrieve information-rich cookies simply by emailing any of the government addresses. There have been other concerns, as well, including the immeasurable value to spam artists of having a list of every email address in the country.
Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, said the postal plan could make the email addresses "guessable", by assigning addresses that would include a zip code or street name. "This could generate a colossal amount of spam," he said.
But Brennan said the addresses would "not be some cutesy little email address". Instead, they will likely be ten-digit alphanumeric jumbles that "wouldn't make sense to anyone", she said.
Richard Smith of the Privacy Foundation said the emails could be vulnerable to what he called "the cookie leak security hole". Using this technique, he said, mass mailers would be able to retrieve information-rich cookies simply by emailing any of the government addresses.
While cookies are usually anonymous, a mass marketer could match it to a street address from any of the hundreds of marketing lists bought and sold every day, he said.