Festive paranoia meets IT

By the time you read this, Christmas 2004 will be just a foggy memory and the local gyms will be awash with people trying to work off festive foods their relatives sent them — except, of course, in the U.S.

In the 10 days running up to Christmas, I, like many others, was trying to get parcels into the mail so that I would not incur the extra cost of express postage. I was not surprised when, while presenting a parcel for the U.S., I was asked for details about its contents: chocolate.

However, the response was unexpected: No can do.

What? No chocolate? Not exactly. Were I to go to an FDA Web site and obtain a Prior Notification number, Canada Post would send it.

Irony No. 1: The only exception to the “no food without a Prior Notice number” rule is home baking. But the clean packaged product from my local chocolate shop seemingly poses a greater threat. It’s a sign of paranoia when a country is afraid of pre-packaged chocolate.

Irony No. 2: The FDA Web site is excruciating. The system that lets you generate the notification number is not for normal people sending chocolate at Christmas. But because I’m stubborn, I worked through this site and 20 minutes later I had entered enough data to generate the magic number.

The standards for setting up your account are intense. The password has to be at least eight characters long, must contain an upper case character, a number and a special character like # or $.

Computers don’t do much when it comes to enforcing rules on physical acts beyond mouse strokes and keyboard entries. The FDA Prior Notice system is a deterrent for individuals sending food to the U.S. only because of the ghastly level of detail required to reach the final end point.

Let’s assume I wanted to send my uncle some chocolate without clearly identifying myself to the U.S. government.

Option 1: Bake something myself.

Option 2: Buy online from a chocolate vendor and have them send it.

Option 3: Fool the system by inventing a new name for myself (Guy Lafleur, maybe?), filling in the form on the FDA Web site in the most minimalist way possible, using the address of my local library with a slightly modified street number. Upon presentation of the printed PDF confirmation page at the post office, I would pay cash and use regular postage rather than express post to avoid a paper trail. Then I would phone my uncle and tell him the Guy Lafleur package is really from me — but don’t let anyone from Homeland Security know.

Given the ease of Options 1 and 2, Option 3 is clearly insane and pointless. But it does have the beauty of being undetectable. The Web application taking the information has no way of knowing that you aren’t who you say you are. The good people of the U.S. Postal Services, U.S. Customs, the FBI, Homeland Security and Entertainment Tonight wouldn’t find you either. Neither would they want to. All they know is that the rules have been followed and America has been protected for another day from foreign boxes of chocolate.

Quick Link: 056866

Ford, a Vancouver-based consultant, runs a travel site (www.TravelInBC.com) that was recently upgraded and has no mention of FDA regulations.

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