Return to Sender

Adam L. Penenberg
Wired, 12/2002

A CENTURY AGO, THE US MAIL WAS CONSIDERED A technological marvel, a sophisticated delivery system that could whisk a letter from Baltimore to Seattle in less than a week. It was the conduit for life’s most essential communications. But that everyday miracle is now an overburdened, vulnerable, and inefficient inconvenience, a daily reminder of debt and a way station for 5.2 million tons of junk mail annually-about half of which is tossed, unopened, into the recycling bin. Most recently, the Postal Service has become a carrier in all the wrong ways.

There’s one foolproof method for improving mail delivery: Abolish the system. It’s not too difficult to imagine life without it. There’s FedEx, automatic withdrawals, email, and Internet bill payment (one of the few worthwhile legacies of the dotcom era for consumers). It’s useful to ask what, exactly, Americans get out of the USPS, and how we might retain what we like while reducing the risks. After all, less than 3 percent of the people who receive catalogs sent by the likes of J. Crew and Lands’ End actually buy anything. Add to that all those credit card offers, insurance come-ons, charity solicitations, political advertisements, and magazines cramming America’s mailboxes, and it’s clear that very little of the mail we receive is welcome or needed.

If we keep the current system, accountability must be brought to it. The laissez-faire USPS must become a service that traces all 567 million pieces of mail handled daily back to their senders. Think of it as Caller ID for mail. This technology already exists and is being used sporadically by the government to track packages and certified letters. A few other well-targeted changes could create a smart system that brings citizens only the mail they actually want. Among the particulars:

Registered Mail Only: This idea begins with what 93 percent of Americans over 16 are already carrying – a state driver’s license or ID card. The American Association of Motor Vehicles Administrators has proposed mandating that all such IDs have a thumbprint or other biometric features, so they can’t be forged. Some 27 states, including New York, already affix licenses with this portable data file, and at least a dozen others, including California, plan to follow suit. The next step is for the USPS to use these files to mark every bit of mail sent. If you were to walk into one of the nation’s 38,060 post offices for stamps, you’d hand your license to the clerk, who would scan the barcode into a PC; a high-speed printer would spit out a book, each stamp with a unique serial number, digitally encrypted barcode, or other identifier. You could also swipe your card at a kiosk or even print out stamps at home.

Private Mail Services: Because mountains of junk mail end up wasted anyway, why not have direct marketers use private delivery services? These companies, by the sheer volume of mail they send, could quickly accomplish an economy of scale, making this conversion cost-effective. And the private services could offer at-home pickup for people who wish to send wedding invitations or special announcements.

Direct-mail Barcodes: Direct mailers (responsible for almost half of all mail) and bill collectors could do their part by personalizing return envelopes. A separate barcode could store additional encrypted identifiers, which could automatically be cross-referenced with your personalized stamp.

Junk Mail Opt-out: If the postal system were completely computerized and tied into a network, consumers could opt out of receiving junk mail. After all, if you didn’t ask for it, why should you have to deal with it?

Certified Safe Mail: Being able to trace mail back to the sender would lessen the threat of terrorism so dramatically that there would be little need to sniff every piece for biothreats, chemicals, or explosives. But those who want additional security could pay for delivery that is “certified safe.”

Secure Drop Boxes: Barcode scanning and other weapons-detection technologies could be extended to the nation’s 249,000 drop boxes. First, advises Ilan Katsir, a security expert and former colonel in the Israel Defense Forces, we need to make mail slots smaller. Then, he says, each drop box should have a bomb sniffer and chemical- and biological-weapons scanner, all tied into a wireless network. If something triggers the alarm-say, anthrax spores or a personalized stamp someone reported stolen-an emergency response team could be dispatched.

Copyright 2002 Adam L. Penenberg (