A law enforcement division inside the US Postal Service has quietly been running a program to monitor Americans’ social media posts, according to a document obtained by Yahoo News.
The Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP), which is part of the US Postal Inspection Service, is aimed at investigating mail crimes but has quietly monitored social media posts, including those about planned protests.
“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,” a March 16 government bulletin distributed by the Department of Homeland Security and marked as “law enforcement sensitive” said. “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.”
The bulletin appears to refer to anti-lockdown protests around the World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy.
“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,’” the bulletin said alongside several screenshots, adding that “No intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats.”
“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 bulletin said.
Civil liberties concerns:
Civil liberties experts raised alarm about the program.
“I don’t understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues,” Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor who was tapped by President Obama to review the NSA bulk data collection, told Yahoo News.
“I just don’t think the Postal Service has the degree of sophistication that you would want if you were dealing with national security issues of this sort,” he said. “There are so many other federal agencies that could do this, I don’t understand why the post office would be doing it. There is no need for the post office to do it — you’ve got FBI, Homeland Security and so on, so I don’t know why the post office is doing this.”
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, said the program was “bizarre” and questioned its legality.
“If the individuals they’re monitoring are carrying out or planning criminal activity, that should be the purview of the FBI,” she said. “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.”
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is the primary law enforcement, crime prevention, and security arm of the U.S. Postal Service,” the USPS said in a statement to Yahoo. “As such, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has federal law enforcement officers, Postal Inspectors, who enforce approximately 200 federal laws to achieve the agency’s mission: protect the U.S. Postal Service and its employees, infrastructure, and customers; enforce the laws that defend the nation's mail system from illegal or dangerous use; and ensure public trust in the mail.”
The statement said the iCOP 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. In order to preserve operational effectiveness, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service does not discuss its protocols, investigative methods, or tools.”