USPS Reveals Social Media Surveillance Program
by Anthony W. Accurso
The United States Postal Service (“USPS”) has been running a semi-secret program monitoring social media site traffic, raising concerns about the purpose or authority for such a program surveilling American citizens.
First reported in April 2021 by Jenna Winter on Yahoo! News, the USPS had published a “Situational Awareness Bulletin” on March 16 providing a short summary of the program known as the Internet Covert Operations Program (“iCOP”).
“The iCOP program protects the Postal Service and the public by facilitating the identification, disruption, and dismantling of individuals and organizations that use the mail or USPS online tools to facilitate black market Internet trade or other illegal activities,” according to a 2019 USPS Inspection Service (“USPSIS”) report. This vague description does not mention anything about social media monitoring, though other descriptions of the program detail how USPSIS agents “assume fake identities online, use sophisticated intelligence tools and employ facial recognition software” during investigations into such crimes as “narcotics, mail theft, revenue fraud, homicide, dangerous mail, and more,” according to Reason.com.
According to April testimony by Chief Postal Inspector Gary R. Barksdale, the program launched in 2017 to help track black market shipments of firearms and opioids but by May or June 2020 had transitioned to surveilling social media sites to pre-emptively detect threats to USPS leaders, staff, or facilities.
After it became public that the USPS program was targeting “right-wing leaning Parler and Telegram accounts,” 30 Republican members of Congress wrote a letter to Postmaster Louis DeJoy on April 22.
“The type of amorphous, broad mandate under which iCOP is allegedly operating is particularly troubling because it is unclear why the USPS, of all government agencies and the only one devoted to the delivery of Americans’ mail, is taking on the role of intelligence collection,” stated the GOP letter. “The United States is not lacking in its availability of intelligence agencies, and it should be left to those professionals to engage in this sort of behavior, if it is even necessary at all,” the letter continued.
The Yahoo! News article detailed how data collected by the program is distributed for use by other agencies through Homeland Security fusion centers, suggesting that “[t]he retention and dissemination of these reports could allow federal agencies to receive information they are not allowed by statute to collect themselves.”
Summing-up the questionable nature of the program, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) wrote in the Washington Examiner, “Barksdale couldn’t tell us ... how much taxpayers were paying to run it, or even what legal authority the post office had to spy on the public’s social media activities.”
Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), along with nine Republican co-sponsors, introduced a bill—HR 2921—that would prohibit funds from being used for the iCOP program.
Source: reason.com; billtrack50.com
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