PhotoHere's a little-known fact about the U.S. Postal Service: Since 2001 it has participated in what's called the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, which means it photographs and keeps records of the labeling information on all envelopes and packages sent through the mail, on behalf of American law enforcement.

Last November, when the USPS admitted that hackers (with suspected Chinese government backing) had broken into their database and stolen the confidential data of all 800,000 post office employees, outside security analysts suggested the hackers might've been interested in getting hold of other forms of data, such as that database showing every single envelope and package sent through the U.S. mail since 2001.

In other words: the American government definitely has a photographic record of all the “snail mail” you've sent or received over the past decade and a half, and it's possible the Chinese government has one too.

And now the post office is offering to share this mass mail photography surveillance program with you-the-surveilled through its Real Mail Notification service, which is currently being beta-tested in select zip codes. An emailed USPS press release-slash-invitation sent to customers in northern Virginia starts by asking “Did you know that [the] USPS is building new tools to help Customers [sic] manage their mail from smartphones, PCs, and other devices?”

Online junk mail

PhotoManage your mail over the Internet? Sounds promising. Could it be that the post office is releasing an online tool to make it easier for customers to opt out of receiving annoying and unwanted junk mail?

Nope! Instead, the Real Mail Notification program lets you receive advance copies of that junk mail in electronic form. “See your mail before you get your mail,” says the emailed press release, before explaining: “Real Mail Notification® alerts give you advance notice of your incoming mail, on any device that you use for email. Digital images of your daily mail will arrive in your email inbox in the morning, hours before USPS mail arrives at your home later that day.”

The email urging mail recipients to sign up for this free service touts such advantages as “On vacation, see mail deliveries, or Mail on Hold” and “See important letters, documents and checks, online, before they arrive.” However, an interview which Gary Reblin, the USPS VP of New Products and Innovation, gave to Direct Marketing News suggests that the real intended “customers” of this service will be direct mail marketers – junk-mail senders, in other words.

For most of its history, the post office made the bulk of its operating costs by sending first-class mail – mainly letters and greeting cards. Before the Internet, letters were the cheapest and most convenient way for people to keep in touch with non-local friends and relatives. Currently, however, the rise of email, free long-distance phone calls, Skype, and other super-cheap and lightning-fast communication technologies has killed most of the market for first-class mail.

In 2005 the post office passed a dismal milestone: The volume of first-class mail fell below that of junk mail for the first time. (And at the time, the USPS had to send three pieces of direct-rate junk mail to equal the profit it made sending just one piece of standard stamp-bearing first-class mail.)

Making up for losses

So whatever first-class business the USPS loses must be replaced by three times the amount of junk mail, simply for the post office to break even. Nowadays, the direct-mail marketers who pay the post office to deliver junk mail are far more important to the USPS's bottom line than the ordinary American citizens who receive it. And that's why the USPS's real hope regarding Real Mail Notification is that it will “mak[e] the U.S. Mail a digital conduit for website visits and transactions,” as Direct Marketing News said.

In other words, the post office hopes that you won't merely look at emailed previews of the ads your local Pizza Schlub is mailing you today; the hope is that you'll click through and visit Pizza Schlub's website, along with enough of your neighbors to convince Pizza Schlub's marketing department that junk mail is a good use of the company's advertising budget, so they'll keep paying the USPS to deliver it.

As Gary Reblin, the post office's VP of New Products and Innovation, said: “We think this [Real Mail Notification] is an idea that is going to change and revolutionize direct mail. Why? Because, for marketers, it's all about response.”

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