Washington, DC – The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has been operating a “covert operations program” tasked with monitoring and collecting Americans’ social media posts as part of a surveillance effort.
The previously-secret USPS tracking program is being carried out by the agency’s Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP), which is the law enforcement arm of the agency, according to a document obtained by Yahoo News.
Analysts have been combing through social media sites, searching for posts that the government deems to be “inflammatory,” according to Yahoo News.
The document was dated March 16 and distributed through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) fusion centers, according to the news outlet.
It was labeled as being “law enforcement sensitive,” Yahoo News reported.
“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 read.
“Locations and times have been identified for these protests, which are being distributed online across multiple social media platforms, to include Parler and Telegram accounts,” the document read.
The iCOP analysts said multiple groups were allegedly planning to hold World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy events in cities throughout the world on March 20, Yahoo News reported.
The focus of the events was to protest a wide variety of issues, according to the agency.
“Parler users have commented about their intent to use the rallies to engage in violence,” the bulletin read.
Among the many screenshots analysts included on the notification was one from Parler “indicating two users discussing the event as an opportunity to engage in a ‘fight’ and to ‘do serious damage,’” but the document also noted there was “no intelligence available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats,” according to Yahoo News.
Screenshots were also taken of posts from Facebook, Telegram, and multiple other social media platforms.
The bulletin included names and identifying details for multiple individuals whose posts did not seem to be 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 read.
Civil liberties experts expressed confusion regarding why the USPS is conducting a large-scale, covert surveillance operation, Yahoo News reported.
“This seems a little bizarre,” Breann Center for Justice Liberty and National Security Program Deputy Director Rachel Levison-Waldman told the news outlet.
“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,” Levison-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 said monitoring social media activity should fall under the purview of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and questioned whether or not the USPS even has the legal authority to facilitate such a program, Yahoo News reported.
“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,” Levison-Waldman added.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service refused to comment on several specific questions regarding iCOP, but noted the program “assesses threats to Postal Service employees and its infrastructure by monitoring publicly available open source information,” Yahoo News reported.
“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 agency said. “In order to preserve operational effectiveness, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service does not discuss its protocols, investigative methods, or tools.”
Meanwhile, the DHS confirmed last month that it is planning to monitor social media platforms for potential domestic terrorism threats, Yahoo News reported.
“We know that this threat is fueled mainly by false narratives, conspiracy theories and extremist rhetoric read through social media and other online platforms,” one DHS spokesperson said. “That’s why we’re kicking off engagement directly with social media companies.”
DHS said it is coordinating with its “private colleagues” and “civil rights and civil liberties” groups in order “to ensure that everything we’re doing is being done responsibly and in line with civil rights and civil liberties and individual privacy,” the DHS spokesperson said, according to Yahoo News.