from Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

To Save the Postal Service, Bring It Online

A U.S. postal worker loads his truck as he begins his day during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Carlsbad, California.
A U.S. postal worker loads his truck as he begins his day during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Carlsbad, California. Mike Blake/Reuters

Rather than preserving the post office of the twentieth century in amber or doing away with it all together, there is a third approach: Modernize it to meet the needs of the twenty-first century.

Originally published at The Hill

August 18, 2020

A U.S. postal worker loads his truck as he begins his day during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Carlsbad, California.
A U.S. postal worker loads his truck as he begins his day during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Carlsbad, California. Mike Blake/Reuters
Article
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The battle over the U.S. Postal Service is once again heating up with the jobs of America’s 500,000 postal workers on the line. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says the Postal Service needs $25 billion through the end of 2021 to make up the shortfall caused by a drop in mail volumes since the start of the pandemic.

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For his part, President Trump, sees the revenue shortfall as an opportunity to convert the post office from a government service to a private business. His focus is on forcing the Postal Service to dramatically increase rates for package delivery, incensed that the Postal Service has given what he views as a deep discount to Amazon and its owner, rival billionaire (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos.

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Rather than preserving the post office of the 20th Century in amber or doing away with it all together, there is a third approach: Modernize it to meet the needs of the 21st Century.

To make up lost revenue, the Postal Service should look to provide services that fulfill the traditional functions it provides in a digital age.

We think of the Postal Service as a provider of delivery services, a field where it competes with UPS, FedEx and others. What differentiates the Postal Service from these carriers—and even from other Federal agencies—is that we trust it.

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When we dump wedding invitations, or checks, or forms with personal information into a blue mailbox on the corner, we trust that it will get to its destination. We trust that only a U.S. Postal Worker will handle it and that we are protected by law from it being opened by anyone other than the intended recipient.

We also trust that anyone using the mail to commit fraud will be punished.

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The Postal Service has an admirable track record for meeting these obligations, explaining why 91 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the U.S. Postal Service, the highest of any Federal agency.

What America needs in the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 economy is a trusted agent than [sic] can help bring the remaining non-package delivery services that the post office still carries out online. The Postal Service already provides identity proofing services for passport applications, allowing any American to go to a post office with their birth certificate and prove they have a right to a passport.

Many groups, trying to solve the vexing problem of identity theft, have proposed that the Postal Service should offer this service for private credentials that could be used online. Instead of accepting a limited role in identity validation, the postal service should build a series of other value-added services around it.

The privacy protections provided to U.S. mail are present in no form of email provided through private services. Almost all email providers today in fact, regularly and routinely, violate user privacy in order to harvest personal details to target ads at them.

A U.S. Postal Service validated email address tied to a confirmed identity could eliminate the need for many uses of postal mail today to confirm that individuals actually reside where they say they do. Such an email address could serve as a validated, unique identifier, replacing the social security number for most purposes that do not involve transactions with the Social Security Administration.

With validated identities tied to an email address, many forms of identity fraud in commercial and government transactions could be virtually eliminated, saving companies and the government billions of dollars each year.

While it is too late for this fall’s election, making online voting a reality will be all but impossible without the ability to strongly and quickly assert identity online. A U.S. Postal Service backed identity proofing system would be the best—and possibly only—option to create a trusted system for validating a voter’s right to cast a ballot online.

Congress must act to save the Postal Service. That starts with a large infusion of cash to make up the near-term deficit, but it cannot end there. Physical mail will continue to decline as we move into a digital future. Saving the post office as an institution doesn’t require keeping mail volumes up but requires that the trust we place in the Postal Service in the real world be transitioned into that role online. To do that, Congress must—in exchange for bailing out the post office now—require the Postal Service to move swiftly and decisively into the digital realm.

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Resources

In this Council Special Report, Knake explains how the U.S. Postal Service can help solve the long-standing problem of validating identities in the digital realm.

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