Friday, December 19, 2008

An unfortunate sign of the times

The New York Times reports that the U.S. Postal Service is suspending its Operation Santa programs in New York and other cities. The programs, which have operated in different cities for more than 100 years, allowed post office customers to provide gifts to children who had written letters to Santa Claus.

According to the Times, "A Postal Service official in Washington, after an initial, limited acknowledgment of a 'privacy breach,' said that at one of the programs, not New York’s, a man whom a letter carrier recognized as a registered sex offender had 'adopted' a letter."

The problem with the program was that the Santas had the children's addresses and could provide gifts to children directly, sometimes in person.

The USPS is hoping to resume the program once it implements procedures to anonymize the children's letters. Under these arrangements, the post offices would act as clearing houses. They would replace the names and addresses in the letters with codes, and Santas would then only have the codes. Gifts would be brought to the post office, where workers would take care of subsequently unscrambling the codes and getting the gifts to the right children.

Sadly, even this wouldn't stop all possible abuses unless the USPS inspected the packages being sent to the children, as predators could still include their own contact information, or worse things, in the packages.

The USPS is absolutely right to take steps to protect the privacy and safety of children. It's terrible, though, that the bad actions of a few people could put such a worthwhile project at risk.