According to a document acquired by Yahoo News, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has been secretly operating a program that tracks and shares information from American users’ social media messages with various government agencies.
The USPS’s law enforcement arm has been engaged in a previously undisclosed monitoring campaign known as the Internet Covert Operations Program (ICOP), which combs through social media sites for “inflammatory” messages that are then reported to the government, Yahoo News reports.
Marked as “law enforcement sensitive,” the document dated March 16 shows that the ICOP keeps track of protests across the country.
“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 document says.
“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,” reads the document.
The document contains screenshots of posts from Parler, Facebook, and other social media sites and claims that the surveillance program monitors these sites for potential threats and will distribute intelligence alerts as appropriate.
For example, a national protest called the World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy was planned on March 20 to express dissatisfaction with several problems, including the coronavirus lockdown policy.
“Parler users have commented about their intent to use the rallies to engage in violence,” the document 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 until now, “no intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats,” the document concludes.
It also includes screenshots from the protests, including unique names of people, such as a member of the Proud Boys, a contentious fraternal group.
USPIS provided a statement about the authority it has to monitor the social media presence of U.S. citizens.
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is the primary law enforcement, crime prevention, and security arm of the U.S. Postal Service,” the statement read. “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.”
Responding to the news, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, wrote in a tweet on Wednesday, “Finally, an answer to the question: “Is there any federal agency that’s not spying on Americans?”
Finally, an answer to the question: “Is there any federal agency that’s not spying on Americans?” https://t.co/gA6KoguD4N
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) April 21, 2021
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security initiative, said that the Postal Service does not have the legal authority to monitor social media activity, reports Yahoo.
“If the individuals they’re monitoring are carrying out or planning criminal activity, that should be the purview of the FBI,” said Levinson-Waldman. “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.”
“It’s a mystery,” University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone told Yahoo News. “I don’t understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues.”