A covert U.S. Postal Service isn’t just about delivering mail and packages to your door. The quasi-government agency also has an active law enforcement arm that took it upon itself the job of collecting and monitoring social media through a program called the “Internet Covert Operations Program” or “iCOP.”
What did social media spying have to do with securing the mail? According to a report from the Postal Service’s inspector general, absolutely nothing:
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. Furthermore, we could not corroborate whether other work analysts completed from October 2018 through June 2021 was legally authorized. We also found that management did not develop a records management policy or sensitive information storage and retention standards for iCOP. Finally, contracts supporting these activities did not include all required documents upon award.
Strip away the bureaucratese and the bottom line is iCOP went rogue. What were iCOP snoops looking for? According to the IG’s report, a big draw was searches related to “protest activities.” But what do protests have to do with the mail? That’s a good question, and one the IG says involved an online fishing expedition:
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. 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. (emphasis added).
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.
Postal Service managers pushed back on the IG’s findings, asserting that the iCOP dragnet wasn’t illegal and that every search was post office-related.
On the far more ticklish issues of whether these searches violated the First Amendment, Reason Magazine’s Brian Doherty writes:
The post office even cleverly argues that if it did keep conveniently checkable records about the searches it is doing regarding American citizens, as the IG recommends, then that would impact citizens’ First Amendment rights. In other words, their snooping doesn’t constitute the harm but allowing any outside inspector to know about the details of the snooping results would.
That’s…interesting. But it’s of a piece with other government surveillance activities – most infamously, the National Security Agency’s (since “mothballed”) mass collection of phone and internet data.
It’s all done in the name of security. The more frequent side effect is eroding liberty.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of American Liberty News.