Pushing the Envelopes: New US Postal Service Report Assesses Possible Blockchain Applications

"Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp", Image by Nicolas Raymond

“Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp”, Image by Nicolas Raymond

Way before the advent of email, when people exclusively wrote letters on paper and mailed them to each other (yes, this really did happen once upon a time), there was a long-running scam known as the “chain letter“. Recipients who received such a letter were asked, often through manipulative language, to copy it and send it on to as many other people as possible. In effect, these were structured as fraudulent pyramid schemes that ultimately would collapse in on themselves.

Sometimes chain letters involved illegal financial dealings and other hoaxes, also producing unwanted emotional effects on who mistakenly fell for them. Variations of the chain letter still survive today online and operate using email, texting and social media.

However, an emerging new form of virtual chain, in conjunction with the mail service, might soon appear – – namely using the blockchain – – within the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). However, this combination could potentially produce four very positive improvements in services. These exciting prospects were the subject of a most interesting new post on Quartz.com on May 24, 2016 entitled Even the US Postal Service Wants to Start Using Blockchain Tech, by Ian Kar. I recommend reading this article in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and pose some questions of my own (but without any additional postage due).

While blockchain technology has been getting a great deal of press coverage recently involving innovative new development initiatives in, among other fields, finance, law, government and the arts, this story illustrates how it also might affect something as routine and mundane as mail service with possibly dramatic results. Such changes could produce significant economic and logistical advances that would affect just about anyone who checks their real world mailbox every day.

(These six Subway Fold posts cover just a small sampling of blochchain projects.)

Better Letters

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Traditionally, the USPS has never really distinguished itself as a leader in innovation. Rather, it has a long reputation for its inefficient operations. This could possibly be significantly changed by this series of a series of blockchain proposals. Because this technology is decentralized, widely accessible, and secured by encryption, it is highly resistant to tampering.

On May 23, 2016, the USPS Office of the Inspector General and a consulting firm called Swiss Economics, published a new report entitled Blockchain Technology: Possibilities for the U.S. Postal Service. It analyzed the following four possible future implementations:

1.  Financial Services:  US post offices currently offers a limited number of financial services such as international money transfers. The IOG report speculated that the USPS “could benefit from developing its own bitcoin-like digital currency”.  Perhaps it could be called “Postcoin”. This would permit the expansion into other financial services such as a “global payment service” for people without traditional bank accounts.

2.  Identity:  An individual’s identity could be verified for the USPS using a blockchain. Essentially, they already do this when they deliver your mail to you each day. By using a blockchain for this, the USPS could provide you with assistance to help you manage both your online and offline identities “by storing it on an immutable ledger”.

3.  Logistics Support:  Applying the blochchain to support the Internet of Things (IoT) could enhance the USPS logistics management operations. The IGO report imagine a system where “vehicles and sorting equipment could manage their own tracking, monitoring, and maintenance”. This could include items such as autonomously, efficiently and economically monitoring brake pad performance including:

  • Assessing when one will need to be replaced
  • Determining whether its warranty is still in effect
  • Creating a smart contract with a vendor to replace it
  • Paying for the part and its installation

4.  Mail Tracking:  On a daily basis, the USPS delivers 509 million pieces of mail. As stated in the OIG report, the blockchain can be deployed to uniquely identify each piece of it. This could be done with “a small sensor” on each piece in order to use the blockchain to “manage the chain of custody between different USPS partners, like UPS and Fedex”. As well, the blockchain could be put to the additional uses of:

  • Expediting customs clearance
  • Integrating payments
  • Shipping upon one unified platform

[All of these components form the very convenient anagram FILM, thus making it easier to, well, picture.]

For now, the USPS intends to keep studying blockchain technology. The OIG report states that the agency “could benefit from experimenting” with it on new financial products and then eventually progress on toward “more complex uses”.

"Stamped Mail to be Posted", Image by Steven Depolo

“Stamped Mail to be Posted”, Image by Steven Depolo

My Questions

  • Would these blochchain apps have a negative impact on USPS revenues as this massive government agency has been running at a budget deficit for many years? If so, would this have unintended negative consequences for consumers and/or the USPS?
  • Conversely, can the USPS use blockchain innovations to create new sources of revenue and employment? What new sorts of job descriptions and titles might emerge?
  • Would the blockchain do away with the traditional services of certified, registered, priority and insured mail? If so, what forms of proof of delivery or non-delivery could be provided to consumers?
  • Would any of these proposed new apps possibly create new privacy issues for consumers and policy concerns for the US government?
  • What type of opportunities might arise for entrepreneurs to create new mail apps built on the blockchain?

Vermont’s Legislature is Considering Support for Blockchain Technology and Smart Contracts

"Ledger Detailing External Work Commissioned at Holmes McDougall", Image by Edinburgh City of Print

“Ledger Detailing External Work Commissioned at Holmes McDougall”, Image by Edinburgh City of Print

Merriam-Webster.com lists two definitions for the word legerdemain:”1. Sleight of hand. 2. A display of skill or adroitness”.

If a newly passed bill and a currently pending amendment to it in the state of  Vermont’s legislature produce their intended results and, taking the second of the above definitions into consideration, I think that such a combination might give rise to a, well, [bit]coining of a new homophone: ledgerdomain. That is, a conflation of:

  • the blockchain technology upon which the online ledger for Bitcoin and a growing array of other systems is built, and
  • the concept of the domain name, a critical Internet protocol.

The details of this very interesting story involving this unique meeting of the virtual and legislative worlds were reported in an article posted on cointelegraph.com on August 5, 2015 entitled Vermont Considering Blockchain Tech for State Records, Smart Contracts by Brian Cohen. I highly recommend clicking-through and reading it in its entirety. I will summarize just those parts of the article about the blockchain legislation and smart contracts, provide some annotations, and then add some of my own questions to the ledger.

Vermont’s Blockchain Legislation

This new legislation is intended to move the state towards using blockchain technology for “records, smart contracts and other applications”. One of the key distinctions here is that Vermont is not in any manner approving or adopting Bitcoin, but rather, the state is diversifying and adapting the underlying blockchain technology that supports it. Just recently, we examined a comparable effort in the music industry in the August 21, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry. (Please see also the May 8, 2015 SF post entitled Book Review of “The Age of Cryptocurrency”.)

In June 2015, a bill entitled No. 51. An Act relating to promoting economic development was signed into law by Vermont’s Governor, Peter Shumlin. On Page 7 is “Sec. A.3 Study and Report: Blockchain Technology”, requiring a report to be completed by January 16, 2016 on the “potential opportunities and risks” of using blockchain technology “for electronic facts and records”.

An as yet to be signed amendment to this legislation by Vermont General Assembly Senator Becca Balint is a “roadmap if there are favorable findings” in this report.  In April 2015, the amendment mentioned above appearing on Pages 2 and 3 of the PDF file for Sec. 47. 9 V.S.A. Chapter 2: Electronic Verification Of Facts And Records: § 11. Blockchain Enabling was introduced. The relevant text of §11(a) appears as:

Blockchain technology shall be a recognized practice for the verification of a fact or record, and those facts or records established through a valid blockchain technology process shall have a presumption of validity for matters to be determined subject to, or in accordance with, the laws of the State of Vermont

Because of some recent negative publicity about a number of cases of alleged illegality involving Bitcoin, the virtual currency is never mention in any of the official text. Instead, the focus of the bill and the amendment are squarely upon exploring the potential of the blockchain. It is the promising technological capabilities of the online ledger system that have drawn this serious attention from Vermont’s legislators.

Smart Contracts Resources

Oliver R. Goodenough, the Director of the Center for Legal Innovation at the Vermont School of Law, drafted the amendment. In his previous state legislative testimony along with his supporting memorandum on April 1, 2015 by Professor Goodenough, among other topics, he addressed the need for recognition of smart contracts. He mentioned the advances being made on these systems that “permit the statement of contractual obligations in software” covered in his own academic writing and the work of the software companies Ethereum (another link here covers this startup on Wikipedia), and Exari. He further recommended making “Vermont a leader in the field”.

Among the citations to the professor’s memo is one from an Office of Financial Research of the U.S. Department of Treasury Working Paper entitled Contract as Automaton: The Computational Representation of Financial Agreements. (This was dated March 26, 2015, just four days prior to his legislative testimony.) In turn, this paper contains a link to a one-hour YouTube video entitled Ethereum Contracts as Legal Contracts. This is an in-depth presentation by patent attorney Tom Johnson where he discusses the legality of smart contracts and documents using Ethereum. (I believe this video is quite informative and enlightening for anyone who is interested in the legal aspects and implications of Bitcoin and blockchain technology.)

My own questions are as follows:

  • How can the operations and possible benefits of adopting blockchain technology be effectively introduced to other states’ legislators and their constituents?
  • Should the US federal government and federal agencies initiate such studies for their operations?
  • Should local, state and federal judicial systems also undertake pilot studies to weigh the risks and rewards of introducing the blockchain applications?
  • What, if any, potential benefits would the large numbers of commercial contractors who deal with government agencies derive from applications of the blockchain?
  • Where should potential entrepreneurs now be looking in this early market to provide guidance and services for the possible evaluation, planning, installation, implementation, rollout, maintenance and upgrades of blockchain-based government IT systems?

For another comprehensive and timely article on the early stage blockchain work now being done in the private sector within the financial industry, I highly recommend clicking-through and reading an article from the August 28, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled Bitcoin Technology Piques Interest on Wall St., by Nathaniel Popper. It also references and links to the cointelegraph.com report discussed above and well as the August 5, 2015 billboard.com article which was the basis for the August 21, 2015 Subway Fold post linked to in the fourth paragraph above concerning the music industry.