Commentary

Securing the Postal Front

By Edward L. Hudgins
October 25, 2001
The anthrax attacks place the security of postal services on the front line in the war against terrorism. The good news is that this threat is being dealt with quickly, not only by law enforcement and U.S. Postal Service officials but also by the private sector. But the threats likely will hasten changes already occurring in America’s postal delivery and communications infrastructure — changes good for consumers and the economy.

Let’s put the situation in perspective. The USPS processes some 680 million pieces of mail every day. So far, less than a dozen envelopes have possibly contained the bacteria anthrax. That means, fortunately, that the chances of most people receiving such infective missives are as microscopic as those deadly anthrax spores. Further, the envelopes have been targeted at news organizations, elected officials and businesses. This suggests that the average citizen probably need not worry about plagues in the mailbox.

The threat can be further isolated. So far it seems that only pre-stamped envelopes that one might purchase at a post office have been used to send anthrax. Such envelopes are difficult to trace to a sender. That’s why terrorists use them. And all businesses and likely targets of attacks already are dealing with the threat. For example, the American Society of Association Executives has supplied their 25,000 members who represent trade and professional organizations with information on how to spot suspect mail and what to do with it. Further, various mail handlers are exploring ways to deal with this threat. “Sniffer” machines, for instance, could be used to detect dangerous biological contaminants. Or the mail might be irradiated. Many vegetables are routinely zapped to kill harmful bacteria. Gamma irradiation of the mail would kill not only anthrax but also smallpox and every other bacterial threat.

Private companies especially are in the forefront of postal security. For example, Pitney Bowes, which makes many of the mail metering machines, manages some 1,300 mailrooms for businesses, including over 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies, and even for the U.S. House of Representatives. Pitney offers special mailroom security services, for example, to scan packages for bombs. But only 5 percent of businesses use that service. No doubt that number will rise in the future as such companies add packages to protect against biological dangers.

While stamped envelopes have been used in the anthrax attacks, mail with postage that is affixed by a metering machine or by a PC and printer through an online postage venting company like Stamps.com have not - so far. This is no doubt because sending such mail requires an account that one can trace to the sender. Counterfeiting such postmarks is difficult. If it weren’t, people would be forging them regularly, stealing postage from machines and driving companies selling such machines and services out of business.

These facts point to a trend that likely will accelerate. Businesses use electronic mail metering because it is more efficient than sticking stamps on every piece of mail. And individuals not only can purchase postage online, they can also purchase a personal postage metering-machine for $20 at any Office Depot. In the future companies will offer packages that will allow people to customize and personalize mail even more, putting logos or photographs on envelopes.

There will be other incentives for private individuals to abandon stamps for machine-processed mail. It makes sense for consumers and businesses to have a more integrated delivery and communications system. In other words, your email account could be tied to your home address, which could be linked to your bank account when you want to quickly order and pay for an item to be shipped to your home. Perhaps you’ll want to track your incoming or outgoing mail to make certain it reaches you or its destination. United Parcel Service and other private companies already offer such services. (And perhaps you will refuse any mail that does not have a tracking number and thus could carry some threat to you.)

Private companies are shaping this new postal world. To have the flexibility both to protect the public from dangerous mail and to provide such new services, the government-owned U.S. Postal Service needs to be transformed into a private company, as well. Before the September 11 attacks the USPS was sick, hemorrhaging money. The anthrax attacks could weaken it further. To regain its health, the Postal Service must be immunized by becoming a private company.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute and editor of the book, Mail@theMillenium.