The recent spate anthrax-laced letters have put the United States Postal Service squarely on the front lines of the bio-terrorism battlefield.
A special task force looking at ways to better secure the U.S. mail this week released recommendations that included broadening the use of information technology to make it easier to trace the source of letters and packages.
Michael Critelli and John Nolan, co-chairs of the Mailing Industry Task Force, issued the recommendations to make more widespread the practice of digital-stamping of letters, packages & flat mail to create "intelligent mail."
Critelli, chairman and CEO of Pitney Bowes Corp., and Nolan, Deputy Postmaster of the U.S. Postal Service, made the announcement at the National Postal Forum this week in Denver.
"No one could have anticipated recent events, or how someone could target the mail to carry out such evil purposes," lamented U.S. Postmaster General John Potter. "But we cant sit back and let the nations confidence in the mail erode."
To combat that, Potter announced the formation of a "Mail Security Task Force" at the forum.
High-tech programs already exist that turn packages and letters into intelligent mail, reducing the senders anonymity and making the bad guys easier to root out. Currently they come in the form of downloadable postage available to anyone with a PC and internet connection, at Stamps.com or USPS.com.
"Each digital stamp is unique, creating an intelligent mail piece that makes it very easy to track and trace suspicious items right back to the sender," says Gerry Kreienkamp, a USPS spokesman, in Washington.
Data-rich, machine readable portable data file barcodes are embedded into postage, revealing information like the exact computer to which it was downloaded and when the letter arrived at the destination post office. A portable data file is a communication protocol, developed by Symbol Technologies that carries a kilobyte of data in a square inch, and is instantly readable by laser scanning or imaging devices.
While these "smart" barcodes are also used by large mailers, like catalog marketers and credit card companies, Symbol, of Holtsville, N.Y., believes their use should be extended to uses beyond downloadable stamps.
The Postal Service has already started pilot-testing ATM-like machines where consumers can buy postage at their convenience.
The U.S. Postal Service is a colossal enterprise. It delivers more mail on the average day – approximately 680 pieces – than United Parcel Service delivers in a week. Six months ago, the USPS convened a "Mailing Industry Task Force" that included representatives of private companies with a stake in the mailing industry, to come up with strategies for enhancing mail services.
These security measures carry great economic importance. "The mailing industry comprises nearly 8 percent of the domestic Gross National Product," Nolan said. "We want to leverage its economic power."