Snail mail squashed by anthrax anxiety

As anthrax anxiety spread around the globe this week, shuttering mailrooms in the U.S. and abroad and causing average citizens to purchase latex gloves and masks just to handle their mail, experts began to wonder if traditional mail would be squashed altogether.

While recent incidents of the deadly bacteria being sent through the mail were few, widespread hoaxes and scares involving the presence of mostly harmless white powder were enough to prompt people to consider safer alternatives to so-called snail mail, such as e-mail.

“I think people will be relying on e-mail, especially if their mailrooms are closed,” said Gartner Inc. vice-president and e-mail analyst Joyce Graff.

Moti Yung, vice-president and chief scientist at e-security firm CertCo Inc., agreed. “I think that the use of e-mail for intercompany communication will definitely increase because it’s a much safer mode of sending mail,” Yung said.

But Robert E. McLean, executive director of the Mailers Council, the largest coalition of mailers in the U.S., said the organizations and marketers that he represents plan to continue their regular use of snail mail.

“Direct marketing is still very effective for reaching discrete groups or covering an entire nation,” said McLean, who noted that mail sent by marketers is not likely to fall under suspicion given that it is directly identifiable and usually includes a traceable paid-postage stamp.

Other than the exception of correspondence going to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where legislative offices have been temporarily closed while authorities make an anthrax sweep, McLean believes that physical mail will go unaffected.

“This (anthrax threat) has been overhyped,” McLean said. “The U.S. Postal Service delivers 680 million pieces of mail a day . . . and look at the number of pieces infected with anthrax. My calculator can’t compute a percentage so small.”

Indeed, while anthrax scares have gripped the U.S., as of Thursday morning only five people had been infected, and 35 had been exposed.

The anthrax threat began in the U.S. almost two weeks ago when a mailroom employee of the American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., died after being infected with the bacteria. Authorities have assumed that the employee was exposed to anthrax that arrived through the mail, although they have not found the actual letter. Since then, anthrax has been sent to news outlets National Broadcasting Co. (NBC), CBS Broadcasting Inc. and ABC Inc. in New York, as well as to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office in the Capitol. Anthrax spores were also detected in the Manhattan offices of New York Governor George Pataki.

The U.S. Postal Service joined with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation today to offer a US$1 million reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in mailing the bacteria.

But far more frequent than the actual cases of anthrax have been false reports concerning the potentially lethal bacteria.

The discovery of what turns out to be innocuous white powdery substances – the form in which anthrax has appeared recently – has caused buildings to close, mailrooms to shut and the public to panic.

While the groups represented by the Mailers Council do not foresee a major change in activity resulting from the anthrax cases, some analysts and experts are advising companies that a move to e-mail-based correspondence would be prudent.

And while the threat of anthrax being sent through the mail has heightened awareness about the physical, although remote, danger of receiving mail, it also highlights the convenience and safety of e-mail-based communication.

“The anthrax scare hasn’t started (the move toward e-mail). This is one more impetus,” said Gartner’s Graff. “It underscores our need for choices.”

According to Joyce, the number and size of e-mail has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 40 per cent since 1981, the year she began tracking it.

Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. reports that by the end of this year there will be 87 million active e-mail users in the U.S., and 100.6 million active users by year-end 2002.

With concerns over the handling of mail coming to the forefront, Yung suggested that a company’s physical mail system could be integrated with its e-mail system. This way, a recipient could be notified by e-mail when a partner or client sends them a package or letter, and they would also receive an e-mail when it arrives. The e-mail could include a digital signature, authenticating the sender’s identity.

In fact, analysts are predicting that if anything, the push toward e-mail communication may lead to the faster adoption and acceptance of digital signatures and documents.

Gartner Research Director James Lundy released a report this week suggesting that companies switch to digital documents, saying that, “enterprises that use electronic documents reduce their dependence on the mail and decrease their vulnerability to mailed explosives and biological or toxic substances – including anthrax.”

Along with the increased use of digital documents, the widespread adoption and recognition of digital signatures is key. Although the U.S. government put the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act in effect last year, digital signatures are still not common practice.

Still, these options provide viable alternatives to physical mail, provided that companies take steps to ensure e-mail security.

Gartner’s Graff said that she has received a spike of inquiries recently concerning e-mail security as companies have moved to more electronic communication.

But while the adoption of digital documents and signatures would be one answer to reducing the amount of physical mail a company receives, some analysts are suggesting a more extreme mail remedy.

Because the arrival of anthrax or some other biological or chemical agent in a company mailroom could cause authorities to shut the whole building down, disrupting all other company activities, Gartner recommends that companies consider creating a temporary mailroom, away from the main office.

While relocating a company mailroom may sound like a drastic measure, analysts said that it is still too early to tell exactly what effects the anthrax scares will have on mail.

“We are all exploring a lot of options for reasons we never thought we’d have to contemplate,” McLean said.