The U.S. Postal Service is running a shadowy surveillance program that tracks Americans’ social media posts — including ones about planned right-wing protests, a report revealed Thursday.
The so-called Internet Covert Operations Program enlists the law enforcement arm of the USPS to hunt down “inflammatory” posts — made by groups ranging from the Proud Boys to demonstrators protesting coronavirus lockdowns, according to documents obtained by Yahoo News.
Posts deemed threatening are then sent to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to be monitored, the outlet reported.
“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,” says a government bulletin, marked as law enforcement-sensitive on March 16. “No intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats.”
The warning — sent from the U.S. Postal Service to the Department of Homeland Security — was in reference to the World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy planned by Q-Anon-linked groups in Washington, D.C. on March 20.
Civil liberties and privacy experts were alarmed by the government surveillance effort, calling it “bizarre” and “concerning,” according to the report.
“It’s not at all clear why their mandate would include monitoring of social media that’s unrelated to use of the postal system,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program.
“If the individuals they’re monitoring are carrying out or planning criminal activity, that should be the purview of the FBI,” she told the outlet. “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.”
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, appointed by former President Barack Obama to review the National Security Agency data, said it’s a “mystery” why the mailing agency would be tasked with rooting out problematic protesters.
“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,” he said. “That part is puzzling.”
“There are so many other federal agencies that could do this….you’ve got FBI, Homeland Security and so on, so I don’t know why the post office is doing this,” he said.
The effort by government branches to monitor Americans’ social media posts has for months been a hotly debated. Posts on Facebook and Parler have allowed law enforcement to track down and arrest rioters who breached the US Capitol building on Jan. 6 — but the method has sparked concerns about the surveillance of free speech and peaceful protests.
The U.S. Postal Service did not respond to questions about the social media-tracking effort sent by Yahoo News.
Instead, it sent a general statement about the program, noting it is set up to assess threats to its own employees.
“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,” the statement said.
“Additionally, the Inspection Service collaborates with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to proactively identify and assess potential threats to the Postal Service, its employees and customers, and its overall mail processing and transportation network. In order to preserve operational effectiveness, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service does not discuss its protocols, investigative methods, or tools.”