Remember that surprise report last year that the United States Postal Service was secretly monitoring social media posts by Americans?
Since spying scandals are so common these days, a little refresher might be in order. Beginning in 2018, the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), which constitutes the law enforcement wing of the USPS, instituted what can only be characterized as a sweeping surveillance program targeting American citizens.
The USPIS established the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP), which was designed to provide supportive analytics for online investigations undertaken by postal inspectors. Most iCOP investigations targeted the usual criminal activities that fall within the Postal Service’s remit, such as mail theft or the transportation of illegal narcotics through the mail.
But some of the program’s operations were devoted to tracking the social media posts and activity of American citizens, including plans for protests and so-called “inflammatory posts.” In practice, this often meant the agency was surveilling dissidents on such right-leaning social media platforms as Parler and Telegram, expending significant energy tracking and cross-referencing data on planned protests.
The Post Office is spying on your social media.
No, that's not a madlibs sentence.
The law enforcement arm of the USPS, which apparently also exists, has something called the Internet Covert Operation Program (iCOP), which has probed social media sites like Telegram and Parler. pic.twitter.com/cFe9V0bS6B
— Spike Cohen (@RealSpikeCohen) May 13, 2021
Now, in a report on its investigation of the iCOP program released on March 25, the Postal Service Office of Inspector General finds that the program went too far.
“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 report states.
“Furthermore, we could not corroborate whether other work analysts completed from October 2018 through June 2021 was legally authorized. The Postal Inspection Service’s activities must have an identified connection to the mail, postal crimes, or the security of Postal Service facilities or personnel (postal nexus) prior to commencing. However, the keywords used for iCOP in the proactive searches did not include any terms with a postal nexus,” t continues.
The Inspector General report also censures the program for using overly broad keywords and search terms, apparently in an attempt to cast as wide a net as possible:
“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. Examples of the keywords include ‘protest,’ ‘attack,’ and ‘destroy.’ According to the program manager, iCOP intentionally omitted terms that would indicate a postal nexus in an effort to broadly identify threats that could then be assessed for any postal nexus,” it stated.
The report is full of such technical jargon, but the gist of it is this: the iCOP program was required to use precise search terms that demonstrated a clear connection to the postal service in some way. It failed to do that, which is why it exceeded the law enforcement authority vested in the Postal Inspection Service. The report also criticizes the program for not having a policy for managing, storing, and securing sensitive records and information.
In an appendix to the report, the Postal Inspection Service responded to the findings:
“We strongly disagree with the overarching conclusion that the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (Inspection Service) exceeded its legal authority and conducted improper intelligence searches…In addition to conducting criminal investigations, the Inspection Service is also responsible for protection of the mails, plant and personnel security, and coordinating Postal Service emergency preparedness planning. To accomplish these goals, case law and federal statutes permit the Inspection Service, like other law enforcement agencies, to use a wide variety of tools when conducting activities in furtherance of its mission.”
In other words, don’t expect the snooping to stop anytime soon.
The prospect of another federal agency exceeding its legal authority and surveilling the constitutionally-protected free speech and political activities of American citizens is understandably alarming, even to postal inspectors. Speaking to Yahoo News, Frank Albergo, president of the Postal Police Officers Association, observed that the Postal Inspection Service had gone astray.
“At this point,” he said, “they might as well take their mission statement of protecting the Postal Service and its employees and throw it in the garbage.”
Whether Big Brother is watching you may be an open question—but it’s a safe bet your friendly local mail carrier is.
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