The United States Postal Service is running “covert operations” to monitor and collect Americans’ social media posts, a document obtained by Yahoo News.
The surveillance effort, carried out by the United States Postal Inspection Service – the law enforcement arm of the USPS – involves analysts examining social media platforms in search of “inflammatory” posts and then passing the information on to additional government agencies.
A March 16 bulletin shared by the postal service reveals the surveillance effort was used to monitor a set of planned protests on March 20.
“Analysts with the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) monitored significant activity regarding planned protests occurring internationally and domestically on March 20, 2021,” the document states. “Locations and times have been identified for these protests, which are being distributed online across multiple social media platforms, to include right-wing leaning Parler and Telegram accounts.”
According to Yahoo News, the bulletin includes sample screenshots of posts from Facebook, Parler and Telegram, was marked “law enforcement sensitive” and distributed to Department of Homeland Security facilities.
Referring to one of the posts, the bulletin says, “Parler users have commented about their intent to use the rallies to engage in violence. Image 3 on the right is a screenshot from Parler indicating two users discussing the event as an opportunity to engage in a ‘fight’ and to ‘do serious damage.'”
“No intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats,” the bulletin continued.
One alleged member of the Proud Boys protest group is included in the document by name, as well as several others whose posts did not appear threatening, Yahoo News reported.
“iCOP analysts are currently monitoring these social media channels for any potential threats stemming from the scheduled protests and will disseminate intelligence updates as needed,” the document says.
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone called the involvement of the USPS in bulk data collection of Americans “a mystery.”
“I don’t understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues,” he said.
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, said it was “bizarre” and potentially unconstitutional.
“Based on the very minimal information that’s available online, it appears that [iCOP] is meant to root out misuse of the postal system by online actors, which doesn’t seem to encompass what’s going on here. It’s not at all clear why their mandate would include monitoring of social media that’s unrelated to use of the postal system,” she said.
“If the individuals they’re monitoring are carrying out or planning criminal activity, that should be the purview of the FBI,” she continued. “If they’re simply engaging in lawfully protected speech, even if it’s odious or objectionable, then monitoring them on that basis raises serious constitutional concerns.”
In response to questions from Yahoo News, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service provided a statement that said, “The Internet Covert Operations Program is a function within the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which assesses threats to Postal Service employees and its infrastructure by monitoring publicly available open source information.”
“Additionally, the Inspection Service collaborates with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to proactively identify and assess potential threats to the Postal Service, its employees and customers, and its overall mail processing and transportation network,” the statement continued. “In order to preserve operational effectiveness, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service does not discuss its protocols, investigative methods, or tools.”