Time to switch permanently to e-mail

Former Lotus CEO Jeff Papows says businesses need to modify their method of communicating with customers--or suffer the consequences of their snail mail not being read or even opened.
Written by Jeff Papows, Contributor
Recent events indicate that American businesses need to take immediate action in modifying their method of communicating with customers and suppliers--or suffer the dire consequences of their snail mail not being read or even opened.

It's not so much a question of fear, but practical business decision making that has led federal and private officials to not accept standard mail or overnight letters, but request e-mail instead.

The Postmaster General has admitted that his organization cannot guarantee the safety of our mail. And while all attention now focuses on anthrax, what about other potential terrorist uses of the mail, involving deadly chemicals or explosives?

Regardless of who's behind the wave of bioterrorism, we need to shift our thinking from the Pony Express to the 21st century. There are more than 300 million e-mail boxes worldwide, the majority of which belong to businesses or governments. Virtually no medium-sized to large business today is conducting commerce without e-mail capabilities.

Yet I hear a continual refrain from corporate leaders that e-mail is not reliable or pervasive enough to adequately replace snail mail. "How could sensitive banking documents, bills and check payments be handled by flaky e-mail systems? And what about hard-copy magazines, catalogues and newspapers?"

All of these quaint, papered anachronisms from the 20th century have been reformatted for online delivery or processing via networks that are as reliable as our phone service. And expensive high-bandwidth issues have all but disappeared as phone and cable companies vie for new customers.

Perhaps the greatest, and most pernicious public misperception, though, is that e-mail cannot be made secure, and that only sealed envelopes carried by postal carriers or private delivery services will suffice. That is wrong, and those corporate leaders who don't wake up to this reality will continue to see their levels of business and profits dwindle.

Today the science of computer encryption has been refined and simplified to a point where anyone can send and receive secure e-mail with no technical training. For example, one need look no further than ZixIt. Many of the largest law firms in this country are now using encrypted e-mail instead of postal or overnight packages to send sensitive legal documents. The same can be said for many large corporations, including Dupont and Conoco.

It's also heartening to see reports that the FBI is investigating how it might quickly re-architect the Internet in this country to ensure that all Internet traffic traveling between U.S.-based e-mail boxes and browsers could be digitally wiretapped by duly authorized investigators. Under the plan, all traffic would be channeled through central servers that could be easily monitored.

As long as the government's actions remained within the limits of current statutes, such surveillance of Internet traffic would be no different than how law enforcement now taps phone lines from phone company central offices or accesses suspects' banking and credit card records.

So, it appears the federal government is rapidly bringing its own oversight authorities into the cyber age. Now it's time for corporate America to follow suit.

The simple fact is that we have the technology to block more snail-mail bioterrorism assaults. Banks, utilities, billing companies, direct-marketing companies and all of those millions who depend on standard mail as the only way to reach one another and their customers will need to reprioritize their thinking and actions.

If the majority of outside communications each of us received every day were electronic, we could turn our standard mailboxes into flag stands or planters. And the odd piece of paper mail that did arrive would clearly warrant close scrutiny and special handling.

Crazy thinking? Maybe before Sept. 11. But now it's simply self-defense.

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