According to a report from Yahoo News on Wednesday, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has been secretly collecting data on Americans’ social media posts.
Yahoo News obtained a government bulletin from March 16 in which readers learn that the USPS’ law enforcement arm is tracking citizens’ social media activity to gather data, including controversial or “inflammatory” postings and protest organizing.
This information is then shared with a number of federal agencies and even apparently has a name: Internet Covert Operations Program, or the abbreviation iCOP.
According to Yahoo News, the document was marked “law enforcement sensitive” and specifically mentioned the monitoring of alleged planned activity for March 20.
This information was then sent throughout the the Department of Homeland Security’s various fusion centers.
The bulletin read, “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 bulletin continued, “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 report noted that iCOP did admit that there was little to no evidence that these supposed threats were legitimate.
According to the bulletin, different groups were allegedly going to gather in various cities worldwide on March 20 to protest for various causes.
“Parler users have commented about their intent to use the rallies to engage in violence,” the bulletin says. “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,.”
But the Yahoo News report notes, “No intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats.”
“The bulletin includes screenshots of posts about the protests from Facebook, Parler, Telegram and other social media sites. Individuals mentioned by name include one alleged Proud Boy and several others whose identifying details were included but whose posts did not appear to contain anything threatening,” Yahoo News observed
The bulletin also said that “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.”
In other words, according to this bulletin as reported by Yahoo News, this monitoring of Americans social media activity by USPS will continue.
Yahoo News reached out to civil liberties experts for their views on the legality of this program.
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone reviewed the NSA’s bulk data collection program after the 2013 Edward Snowden leaks during the Obama administration.
When asked how the USPS was doing this, Stone replied, “It’s a mystery. I don’t understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues.”
“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 added.
“That part is puzzling,” Stone continued. “There are so many other federal agencies that could do this, I don’t understand why the post office would be doing it.”
Stone rattled off a number of government agencies that would be better suited to handle such duties.
“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,” Stone said.
Rachel Levinson-Waldman is the deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program. She told told Yahoo News that learning of this program was “a little bizarre.”
“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,” Levinson-Waldman said.
“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 added, going onto say that constitutionality of the program was questionable at best.
“If the individuals they’re monitoring are carrying out or planning criminal activity, that should be the purview of the FBI,” Levinson-Waldman 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,” she concluded.
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