OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
The law enforcement arm of the United States Postal Service has been covertly engaged in a program to monitor the social media posts of United States citizens.
The terrifying news came on Wednesday when a March 16 bulletin marked as “law enforcement sensitive” was distributed via the Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers, was reported on by Yahoo News.
The law enforcement branch of the Postal Service has been monitoring posts for, among other things, activity related to 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,” it 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.”
Astounding that they could catch that on supposed right-wing platforms but have missed the Antifa and Black Lives Matter gatherings.
Right-wing groups were expected to gather on March 20 as part of a World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy to protest against lockdowns, 5G, and other things.
“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,’” it said. “No intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats.”
The bulletin also included screenshots from Facebook, Parler, Telegram, and other sites. Individuals and even mentioned certain individuals by name.
“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,” it said.
The government’s monitoring of Americans’ social media is the subject of ongoing debate inside and outside government, particularly in recent months, following a rise in domestic unrest. While posts on platforms such as Facebook and Parler have allowed law enforcement to track down and arrest rioters who assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6, such data collection has also sparked concerns about the government surveilling peaceful protesters or those engaged in protected First Amendment activities.
When contacted by Yahoo News, civil liberties experts expressed alarm at the post office’s surveillance program. “It’s a mystery,” said University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, whom President Barack Obama appointed to review the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. “I don’t understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues.”
The Postal Service has had a turbulent year, facing financial insolvency and allegations that its head, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, was slowing down deliveries just as the pandemic vastly increased the number of mail-in ballots for the 2020 election. Why the post office would now move into social media surveillance, which would appear to have little to do with mail deliveries, is unclear.
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, called the program “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. It’s not at all clear why their mandate would include monitoring of social media that’s unrelated to use of the postal system,” it said.
“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 provided a general statement on its authorities to Yahoo News but did not comment on the specific memo.
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is the primary law enforcement, crime prevention, and security arm of the U.S. Postal Service,” it said. “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 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,” ICOP said.
“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,” it said.