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"You have (opened and read) mail"

Delivering the post the old-fashioned way

(Keystone)

The latest service being considered by the Swiss Post – the first of its kind in Europe – involves scanned images of your letters being stored in an online PO Box.

However, the Swiss criminal code leaves no room for misinterpretation when it comes to postal secrecy: "Whoever opens a sealed letter faces three years in prison or a fine."

The concept of the virtual letterbox is very simple: whatever would traditionally be squeezed through your letterbox by a postman – postcards, love letters, bills, adverts – will now end up scanned online.

You view these images of your sealed envelopes and then decide whether to have them securely scanned into a PDF document, recycled, shredded or forwarded – for real – to you or someone else.

The service is aimed at frequent travellers, people who work from remote locations or who spend extended periods away from a main address. For such nomads it should work out cheaper than a traditional mail-forwarding system.

"For [Swiss Post] it's an opportunity to deal with growing mobility and the associated customer requirements," spokesman Mariano Masserini told swissinfo on Friday. "It's a niche product – it's not aimed at farmers' wives in the middle of the country."

Swiss Post is currently negotiating a contract with Earth Class Mail, a Seattle-based company that already "delivers" 250,000 letters a month. If everything goes according to plan, a trial period will start at the beginning of 2009.

It will be the first time the "paperless post" concept has been taken outside the United States.

Encryption

However, while computers can happily scan the post, humans will still have to open the envelopes – with potential ramifications for postal secrecy and the Swiss criminal code.

But Swiss Post doesn't foresee any problems.

"The data is encrypted. Data protection is guaranteed with this product – were this not the case, we wouldn't offer the service," Masserini said.

"Swiss Post is already confronted with sensitive data – in e-banking for example – so we are able to deal with this information and at the same time guarantee postal secrecy."

He said price models were still being worked out, but envisaged similar costs to those in the United States.

Earth Class Mail charges around SFr30 ($26) to set up an account and then an additional SFr12-70 a month, depending on the volume of post.

Swiss precision

"We are thrilled to be working with Swiss Post as the first national postal operator to offer Earth Class Mail," said Earth Class Mail CEO Ron Wiener on the company's website.

"Not only in its home country but in the many other countries in which Swiss Post's distinguished brand for precision, security and reliability is already so well-known. Swiss Post has shown once again why it is one of the most innovative posts in the world."

During the planned pilot phase Swiss Post will provide the service to corporations, government agencies, non-governmental organisations, small businesses and individuals from all over the world who seek mail service or addresses in Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, and Austria.

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Key facts

PostMail delivers 15 million letters a day – from greetings cards and love letters to business correspondence, direct marketing letters and newspapers.

There are 2,493 post offices in Switzerland – one of the densest networks in the world. There were 2,531 at the end of 2005.

The philately unit issues about 40 new stamps a year.

In March the state-owned Swiss Post group made a record profit of SFr909 million ($790 million) in 2007, an 8.6 per cent rise compared with the previous year.

Turnover rose by 10.3 per cent to SFr8.71 billion, with operating profit at SFr866 million.

Swiss Post said the growth was due mainly to its financial services unit (PostFinance), where the operating profit rose by around 30 per cent to SFr318 million. It added that PostFinance had not been affected by the current global credit crisis.

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In brief

Swiss Post is a state-owned company with a workforce of about 55,000 making it the largest public employer. It continues to provide a nationwide public service but also engages in competitive business.

It was originally established in 1849 and from the beginning the federal institution was responsible for transporting passengers, letters, parcels and money.

As part of the market liberalisation, the Post Office lost its monopoly on letters weighing more than 100 grams.

Politics continues to exert a substantial influence on the company. The government sets strategic goals for Swiss Post and monitors them every year.

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