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Tech Tyranny: The USPS Spying Game

Have U.S. Postal Service workers been playing spies, or are they just joining the digital revolution?

by | Apr 24, 2021 | Columns, Privacy & Tech

The friendly neighborhood mail carrier can still be seen on his rounds, but, like the milkman, his industry has declined in today’s modern world. The USPS is struggling, but it may have found a way to survive – with a new mission. A U.S. Postal Service bulletin appears to reveal the agency has been tracking Americans’ social media posts in a covert surveillance effort.

Obtained by Yahoo News, the memo refers to a program of the postal service’s law enforcement arm, the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS). As part of the Internet Covert Operations Program, or iCOP, analysts search social media for “inflammatory” posts and share the data with law enforcement agencies.

The targeted posts in the bulletin are related to protests, with iCOP identifying times and locations, websites, Facebook pages and messages, and trending topics on platforms Parler and Telegram related to possible protest events. Among the targeted rallies were a “World Wide Rally – For Freedom, Peace, and Human Rights” and “Global Action to stop 5G” on March 20.

A USPS statement provided to The New York Post appeared to confirm iCOP’s existence, as well as its cooperation with intelligence agencies. The program “assesses threats to Postal Service employees and its infrastructure by monitoring publicly available open-source information,” the agency said. The “situational awareness bulletin” seems designed to anticipate violence or disruptions from planned demonstrations. But with jurisdictions like identity theft and suspicious packages, some are wondering how monitoring social media accounts of potential protesters would fall under the purview of USPIS.

A Puzzled Reaction

Commentators expressed surprise that the trusty old mail carrier was rifling through social media posts, and members of Congress seemed just as taken aback.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) exclaimed on Twitter: “Disturbing! Why do Presidents and my colleagues in congress tolerate these violations of the Constitution? Also, and unfortunately, the USPS has been losing money for many years… so where do they find money to run this surveillance program?”

“It’s a mystery,” said University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, who reviewed the NSA’s bulk data collection for President Obama. “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,” he told Yahoo News.

Thirty-two Republican lawmakers responded to the exposé with a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, demanding a briefing on the iCOP by April 28. Headed by Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee Rep. James Comer (R-KY) and Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the nonplussed lawmakers suggested it was “baffling why America’s postal service would be involved in this kind of coordinated, intensive review of its citizens’ online activity.” They noted:

“If the reporting is accurate, iCOP raises serious questions about the federal government’s ongoing surveillance of, and encroachment upon, Americans’ private lives and discourse … The type of amorphous, broad mandate under which iCOP is allegedly operating is particularly troubling because it is unclear why the USPS, of all government agencies and the only one devoted to the delivery of Americans’ mail, is taking on the role of intelligence collection.”

Should this be as surprising as many find it, though? Liberty Nation’s Joe Schaeffer reported in 2019 that the USPS was operating large-scale surveillance through its mail cover program. “The U.S. Post Office photographs the front and back of every piece of mail it sends out, some 150 billion items per year. A police agency can simply request mail cover tracking from the post office and wait for approval. Police cannot open the mail but can take note of all information to be gleaned from the envelope,” Schaeffer detailed. “There is serious reason to believe that innocent U.S. citizens are being cataloged for potential crimes they may commit in the future.”

The USPS has long been in the spying game, but it seems nobody expected it to go digital.  Operating in the shadowy world of government agencies, what else is the seemingly benign service doing to track the American public?

Other Covert Activities Online?

The USPIS has a cybercrimes division that deals with online fraud and phishing. “These crimes almost always intersect with the postal system,” according to its website.

[youtube-subscribe align=”left”]One point of interest, however, is USPIS involvement in cyberbullying. One video on the site states: “It’s a serious federal crime to use the mail to threaten a person … Fortunately, these threats don’t happen very often. But there’s a new version of threats that come through social media, online, or by text. It’s called cyberbullying, and it can be devastating if you are the target.”

The video implores the public to report instances of cyberbullying, which may be in the form of extortion, blackmail, hoaxes, or threats to a person’s reputation. With the rules in flux about what constitutes a personal attack and what speech is considered acceptable, coupled with the revelation of secret social media surveillance, some may wonder if the USPS is already setting itself up to police online social interactions.

The postmaster general recently released a 10-year plan that would close post offices and city stations, reduce hours, and lengthen delivery times. With emails and texts replacing handwritten letters, the old-fashioned mailman had to find some way to stay current. In today’s burgeoning world of omnipresent digital surveillance, what better way could he have found to ensure his place in the future?


Read more from Laura Valkovic.

Read More From Laura Valkovic

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