The US Postal Service's law enforcement arm is monitoring the social media activity of Americans to share "inflammatory" content across government agencies, Yahoo News reports.
"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," read a government bulletin. "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."
Mar 20 was the date set for the World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy, an umbrella protest involving many anti-government groups and movements. The bulletin includes screenshots of users planning such protests over various social media sites including Facebook and Parler.
While the bulletin justified this surveillance by suggesting that "Parler users have commented about their intent to use the rallies to engage in violence," it admits that "[no] intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats."
"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 reads.
When asked about the program, the US Postal Service affirmed the importance of their law enforcement arm.
"The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is the primary law enforcement, crime prevention, and security arm of the U.S. Postal Service," the USPS said in a statement. "The Internet Covert Operations Program is a function within the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which assesses threats to Postal Service employees and its infrastructure by monitoring publicly available open source information."
Civil liberties experts remain skeptical, however, noting that the threats documented by the USPS appear to have little connection to the agency's infrastructure.
"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," said Geoffrey Stone, who has previously investigated the NSA's mass surveillance program. "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."
"I don't understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues," he said.
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, who works at the Brennan Center for Justice, also questioned the program.
"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," Levinson-Waldman said. "It's not at all clear why their mandate would include monitoring of social media that's unrelated to use of the postal system."
While she agreed with Stone's assessment that there are other agencies which are better suited to be monitoring for illegal activity, Levinson-Waldman also questioned the constitutionality of the type of speech iCOP was monitoring.
"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," she said.
It is unclear when iCOP began monitoring social media activities, or whether they are continuing to do so.