US Postal Service's Social Media Surveillance Program Uses Clearview's Facial Recognition Tech

from the bad-idea-with-even-worse-execution dept

Late last month, it was discovered the United States Postal Service was operating a social media surveillance program. The "why" of this was never explained. Apparently, the USPS has time and money to blow, so it has something called an "Internet Covert Operations Program" (iCOP) which it uses to investigate crimes that definitely are not of a postal nature.

According to the two-page bulletin first reported on by Yahoo News, iCOP was trawling social media looking for "threats." And the "threats" observed in the report shared with the DHS and its many, many (mostly useless) "Fusion Centers" was that the threats weren't credible.

Great, I guess, but why is the Postal Service surveilling communications that aren't being sent through the mail? I'm sorry if it feels a bit left out by the move to email and other electronic communication methods, but wandering around Twitter and Facebook looking for crimes seems to be both a waste of its limited resources and something that really isn't covered by the directives of the Post Office's investigative wing.

Well, there's even worse news to report. Again, Yahoo News is on top of it. It appears the iCOP program makes use of facial recognition tech. And not just any facial recognition tech. It uses the worst, most questionable offering out there at the moment.

Among the tools used by the analysts is Clearview AI, a facial recognition software that scrapes images off public websites, a practice that has raised the ire of privacy advocates. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service uses Clearview’s facial recognition database of over 3 billion images “to help identify unknown targets in an investigation or locate additional social media accounts for known individuals,” according to materials reviewed by Yahoo News.

What was first just confounding is now also stupidly dangerous. Clearview's tech has never been independently tested. Multiple law enforcement agencies have tried out the product and most feel it's mostly useless, prone to generating false positives or just a wealth of irrelevant information.

Adding a questionable tool to a questionable surveillance program sounds exactly like the sort of thing you'd get when you ask the people in charge of the snail mail to get online. Yahoo reports other tools are in the mix as well, including software that uses keyword searches to dip into the social media firehose. And there's one that lets investigators pretend to be people they aren't while extremely online.

It also uses Nfusion, another software program, to create and maintain anonymous, untraceable email and social media accounts.

For what? So far, all we've seen is a lot of time, money, and wtf-ness produce a determination that some threats weren't actually threats. That doesn't exactly build confidence in a surveillance program no one outside of the federal government believes the USPS should be engaged in.

Yahoo's report notes the program dates back to 2018, when the USPS got more involved in tracking criminal activity on the dark web. It apparently expanded its purview to the regular web. According to a USPS statement, surveilling social media platforms and users is essential to protecting postal workers from dangerous situations and threats. But there's no evidence this program has ever accomplished that goal. All it appears to have accomplished at this point is the surveillance.

And that surveillance is being used unwisely.

Beginning last spring, following the death of George Floyd, iCOP analysts began monitoring social media to track potential violence at racial justice protests. After the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol by Trump supporters, the analysts turned their attention to right-wing accounts, according to documents, including an intelligence bulletin previously obtained and published by Yahoo News.

There's your First Amendment concerns. I'm sure the USPS expected its covert surveillance operations to remain covert and it would never have to address this publicly. But the program is now public knowledge and the USPS needs a better explanation than "we're just being careful." Any number of federal and local law enforcement agencies engage in the same surveillance. We may not like that, but at least they've got some jurisdiction and justification for doing so. Erecting an NSA-lite in USPS data centers makes zero sense when you're the entity in charge of handling physical mail.

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Filed Under: facial recognition, icop, surveillance, usps
Companies: clearview


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 27 May 2021 @ 11:14am

    Welp, time to slash some funding/jobs I guess

    If they've got so much extra time and money that they've decided to get into the public surveillance business sounds like they're ripe for a good budget and manpower cut since last I checked the job of the postal service is to deliver mail not sift through online posts looking for 'threats', and dipping into the latter would seem to suggest they have way more than they need to do the former.

    First on the employment chopping block should probably be whatever idiot(s) thought it was the postal service's job to trawl through online posts, with a reminder that if they want to spy on the american public we've already got a multitude of other agencies doing that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Koby (profile), 27 May 2021 @ 11:41am

    Please Don't Try To Follow The Money

    Departments like the CIA and FBI probably have a low likeability rating right now. Tracing the money back them would be too easy, and could generate a popular opinion to cut those agencies. Going through the USPS may make the funding trace a little less obvious, and then folks would need to call for budget reductions to the post office.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TasMot (profile), 27 May 2021 @ 11:46am

    Well, SEE! That's why they had to remove the automatic mail sorting machines from the processing centers. It's so that they can afford big Internet pipes and servers to process all those feeds that are outside of their jurisdiction.

    NOW WE KNOW why the mail is so slow, they have gotten into the First Amendment Rights violations business, 'cause who would want to leave all that fun to just the FBI, DEA, DHS, ICE and all, when the Postal Service can get in on it too...... </sarc>

    Wow, as an afterthought, taxpayers sure are paying a lot of money to federal agencies to get their 1st Amendment Rights violated in many ways.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Scote, 27 May 2021 @ 11:50am

    So, Dejoy expanded the USPS investigative service into broad internet surveillance unrelated to the mail, while actually reducing or eliminating investigations related to mail theft and the security of postal personnel.

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisondurkee/2020/09/14/postal-police-sue-usps-dejoy-over-restrictions -they-claim-put-postal-workers-in-danger/

    This saboteur needs to go, immediately.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 May 2021 @ 12:43pm

    Isn't it terribly inefficient enough to have ten or so organizations doing law enforcement, without bringing your postal service into it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 27 May 2021 @ 12:59pm

    Last spring, eh? ...so, it's a DeJoy initiative. More reason to get rid of him.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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