The United States Postal Service has been secretly collecting data on Americans' social media posts, Yahoo News revealed Wednesday.
According to a March 16 government bulletin obtained by the outlet, the USPS' law enforcement arm is tracking citizens' social media activity to gather data on a host of topics, including "inflammatory" postings and planned protests, that it shares across multiple federal agencies as part of an effort called the Internet Covert Operations Program, or iCOP.
Yahoo News said the document, which was marked "law enforcement sensitive," specifically mentioned an examination of alleged planned activity for March 20 and was distributed through Homeland Security's fusion centers.
"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 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."
The report said iCOP's intelligence admitted that nothing pointed to the alleged threats as actually being legitimate:
A number of groups were expected to gather in cities around the globe on March 20 as part of a World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy, to protest everything from lockdown measures to 5G. “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,'" says the bulletin.
“No intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats," it adds.
The bulletin includes screenshots of posts about the protests from Facebook, Parler, Telegram and other social media sites. Individuals mentioned by name include one alleged Proud Boy and several others whose identifying details were included but whose posts did not appear to contain anything threatening.
“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 bulletin says.
Civil liberties experts told Yahoo News they were concerned about both the surveillance and why the USPS would be tasked with such an undertaking.
"It's a mystery," said University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, who, Yahoo noted, reviewed the NSA's bulk data collection during the Obama years following the Edward Snowden leaks. "I don't understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues.
"I just don't think the Postal Service has the degree of sophistication that you would want if you were dealing with national security issues of this sort," he continued.
“That part is puzzling," Stone said. “There are so many other federal agencies that could do this, I don't understand why the post office would be doing it. There is no need for the post office to do it — you've got FBI, Homeland Security and so on, so I don't know why the post office is doing this."
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, who serves as deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice's liberty and national security program, told Yahoo that the program “seems 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," she added. "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 also pointed to the constitutionally dubious nature of the program.
"If the individuals they're monitoring are carrying out or planning criminal activity, that should be the purview of the FBI," Levinson-Waldman 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."
Yahoo News said the U.S. Postal Inspection Service did not respond to specific questions about iCOP.