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Home > Privacy and Government > Government Threats to Privacy > Anti-Privacy Law and Regulation > Window Envelopes

Window Envelopes

Though not necessarily embodied in a law or regulation, federal agency practices with window envelopes illustrate the cavalier attitude bureaucrats and agencies may take toward personal information, and how this may threaten privacy or other important interests.

Until the practice was exposed as a problem, federal agencies including the Social Security Administration routinely exhibit people's personal information (beyond name and address) through the windows of envelopes. This needlessly creates a risk that the mailing of checks and other information will expose recipients to identity fraud or invasions of privacy.

Federal agency explanations for this were lame. The Financial Management Service in the U.S. Department of Treasury said that social security numbers had to be displayed so that checks could be manually processed during the two weeks between when they were printed and when they were mailed. FMS explained that social security numbers "are in no way compromised during transit as only government employees (FMS and U.S. Postal Service) and the recipients handle the envelopes." As if fraudsters obey the laws against tampering with mail.

Likewise, the Defense Privacy Board in the Department of Defense has opined that the appearance of the Social Security number in a window envelope "does not constitute a disclosure as contemplated by the Privacy Act. Prior to delivery to the recipient, the only likely disclosure is to personnel of the postal service . . . ."


The Social Security Number Confidentiality Act of 2000 (H.R. 3218)

Window Envelopes and Social Security Number Visibility, Q&A Web page, Financial Management Service, Department of the Treasury (updated February 2, 2001)

The Appearance of the Social Security Number in the Window of an Envelope Containing Record Information Does Not Constitute a Disclosure, Opinion of Defense Privacy Board, Department of Defense (September 23, 1998)

Comments? (Subject: Envelopes)

[updated 04/17/02]

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