US Postal Service Is Surveilling Social Media Services Because It Apparently Has Plenty Of Time And Money To Waste

from the to-inquire-about-this-program,-please-send-SASE-to-iCOP dept

The United States Postal Service is still in the spying business. The USPS has been scanning pretty much every piece of mail that runs through its system, creating a massive database of metadata that serves whatever purpose the USPS imagines it does. "National security" or whatever the fuck.

When not helping the DEA find cash and the occasional drug shipment, the USPS is also apparently keeping tabs on social media users. This includes social media services with smaller, but perhaps more concerning, user bases. The name of the game is still "national security," but it's unclear why the Postal Service -- which has a hard enough time divvying up its limited resources -- is engaged in this sort of surveillance.

A two-page report [PDF] from the USPS's "iCOP" (Internet Covert Operations Program) [again, why is this actually a thing?] -- first reported by Yahoo News -- details the internet sleuthery of US Postal Service Inspectors.

The law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service has been quietly running a program that tracks and collects Americans’ social media posts, including those about planned protests, according to a document obtained by Yahoo News.

The details of the surveillance effort, known as iCOP, or Internet Covert Operations Program, have not previously been made public. The work involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what the document describes as “inflammatory” postings and then sharing that information across government agencies.

Again, this effort seems like -- at best -- a redundancy. Nearly every law enforcement agency has its own social media monitoring program. The DHS and its (mostly useless) Fusion Centers routinely compile information on social media posts. The FBI pretty much considers itself a national security agency at this point and has its own surveillance programs. And plenty of freelancers compile open source info from public posts in their spare investigative time.

But the USPS is in the mix too. And it seems to be treading very close to the First Amendment line.

“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,” says the March 16 government bulletin, marked as “law enforcement sensitive” and distributed through the Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers. “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.”

Planned protests are what's known as free speech round these parts, iCOPs. While there's always a chance someone might stumble across a few true threats, casting a net over the… um… 'Net to trawl for incriminating shitposts seems like an extremely questionable use of the government's time.

The two-pager points out that the most worrying stuff inspectors came across emanated from Parler. But even at its most concerning, the iCOP effort came up with nothing but some wasted tax dollars and a few incursions into inalienable rights territory.

“No intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats,” it adds.

The civil liberties experts contacted by Yahoo for comment were more baffled than aghast, although there was certainly some of the latter because it's concerning when you can't think of a single good reason the USPS should be surveilling social media outlets. And this seems to have nothing to do with the US Postal Inspectors' purview, which should only cover criminal acts involving the mail system. Just because everyone's texting and IMing instead of sending letters and postcards doesn't mean the USPS should be allowed to start surveilling communications methods that no longer involve postage stamps.

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Filed Under: post office, social media, surveillance, usps


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  1. icon
    James Burkhardt (profile), 29 Apr 2021 @ 12:10pm

    Re:

    Postal inspectors predate most of what we think of as federal law enforcement. They also predate USPS being a semi-private org. they were created in a time when we created small dedicated task forces to handle specific crime, rather than larger sweeping agencies handling all crime in a jurisdiction. The Postal inspectors were created to investigate mail theft and mail fraud since those crimes tended to big too big in operational scope for any locals to address, and the USPS was a federal agency. At the time they were created, they had a clear niche no other agency filled. Now they continue to exist, because no agency will fill that role.

    A big reason for that is they have typically stayed on the boring side of the law enforcement descriptor (paper trails, leg work). There is no glory, no headlines. You aren't making a populist political career of the back of mail fraud investigations. The FBI isn't allocating resources to tracking down the guy who busted open the apartment complex mail box. They have terrorists to catch! You need a small, focused team for this. one that isn't looking for headlines.

    So I support their existence. But....its clear someone isn't happy with the boring work. And that its definitely a problem.


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