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US Postal Service's surveillance program acted illegally, according to inspector general probe

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In April 2021, there was a bombshell report by Yahoo! News that the United States Postal Service had secretly been collecting data on social media made posts by Americans. The United States Postal Inspection Service – the law enforcement arm of the United States Postal Service – conducted sweeping searches "that were not legally authorized," according to a probe by the inspector general.

The Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) was established in 2018 to provide analytics support for online investigations for the USPIS. The majority (56%) of investigations by iCOP from October 2018 through March 2021 were investigating narcotics shipped via the USPS and mail theft.

The inspector general probe found that iCOP was reportedly tracking social media activity by Americans in search of any "inflammatory" postings and planned protests.

Last year, the Postal Service Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into iCOP at the request of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform. The inspector general's office "reviewed 434 online analytical support requests from a statistical sample of 160 cases and 70 reports produced by iCOP to assess whether these activities were authorized." On March 25, the inspector general released a report on the findings of the probe.

"We determined that certain proactive searches iCOP conducted using an open-source intelligence tool from February to April 2021 exceeded the Postal Inspection Service’s law enforcement authority," the inspector general report states. "Furthermore, we could not corroborate whether other work analysts completed from October 2018 through June 2021 was legally authorized."

"From February 19 to April 21, 2021, iCOP used one of the 10 profiles established in the intelligence tool to conduct searches that were not legally authorized," the report notes. "This tool manages proactive intelligence gathering by constantly monitoring open-source websites, including social media and message platforms, for predefined sets of keywords."

"The keywords iCOP used for one of the profiles during this time did not include any terms related to the mail, postal crimes, or security of postal facilities or personnel," the probe reveals. "Examples of the keywords include 'protest,' 'attack,' and 'destroy.'"

"We also found that management did not develop a records management policy or sensitive information storage and retention standards for iCOP," the report adds. "Finally, contracts supporting these activities did not include all required documents upon award."

After the Yahoo! News report was published in April 2021, iCOP changed its name to the "Analytics Team."

Following the audit, the inspector general made six recommendations, including that "management conduct a full review of the Analytics Team to ensure activities are authorized; revise the Analytics Team’s Standard Operating Procedures; and develop storage and retention policies."

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