U.S. Postal Service Running “Covert Operations Program” To Track Information Collected From Social Media

OPINION | This article contains political commentary which reflects the author's opinion.

Last year, if you had said that Hunter Biden’s laptop was full of incriminating communication and photos that showed him engaging in various forms of criminal behavior, you’d have been scorned as a right-wing conspiracy theorist. You’d have actually been censored and had your accounts suspended. But you’d have been completely right.

If you had said Governor Cuomo was intentionally fabricating and falsifying records to hide the number of deaths that he caused, you’d have once again been scorned as a right-wing conspiracy theorist. You’d have been fact-checked as ‘misleading.’ But again, you’d have been telling the truth.

If you had said the Russian bounty on U.S. troops story was a hoax made up to make Trump look bad before the election, you’d again find yourself scorned as a right-wing conspiracy theorist. And once again, you’d be vindicated as speaking the truth.

If you had said a division of the U.S. federal government was secretly tracking and cataloging the social media posts of U.S. citizens through a covert operation program, you’d have been immediately dismissed as a dangerous extremist right-wing conspiracy theorist.

And once again, you’d be completely right.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service, has been running a “covert operation program” intended to monitor and track the social media activity of American citizens.

Side note, anyone remember last year when certain politicians freaked out about the postal service not being sufficiently funded and how it was an absolutely essential service despite being one of the most poorly and costly run programs? And remember how we all thought it had to do with mail-in ballots? I wonder how this program factored into these closed-door discussions.

Yahoo! News broke the story with documents they had obtained about the program, which is called the Internet Covert Operations Program, or iCOP. It involves analysts who comb through social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Parler, Telegram, and others, to track and collect anything that could be described as “inflammatory.” The collected posts and information and then shared with other government agencies.

Yahoo! contacted Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, who said,

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“This seems a little bizarre. 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. It’s not at all clear why their mandate would include monitoring of social media that’s unrelated to use of the postal system.”

She continued on, expressing concern about the legality of the entire operation.

“If the individuals they’re monitoring are carrying out or planning criminal activity, that should be the purview of the FBI,” she said. “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, who was appointed by Obama to review bulk data collection by the National Security Agency following the Edward Snowden leaks, said,

“I don’t understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues.”

If you think about it, it’s kind of genius, actually. Who would ever suspect the Postal Service of spying on American citizens and collecting their online data?

The Postal Service did not respond to questions specifically about the iCOP program but did provide Yahoo! with a general statement. Part of that statement says,

“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.”

That’s really the perfect cover story for this program because, as we know from Biden’s infrastructure proposal, you can finagle almost anything to be included in the postal service’s infrastructure. And almost anything that could be considered a threat to any American citizen could also be considered a potential threat to a postal service employee, right? And if during the course of their social media tracking, they happen across information not pertinent to their own infrastructure but potentially pertinent to an adjacent agency’s infrastructure, it’s really their duty to catalog that information and send it on to others, right? Seems like they’ve been written a blank surveillance check.

Imagine. A secret program within an innocuous and benign division of the federal government that collects and catalogs the social media information of American citizens with apparently broad and inclusive surveillance parameters. That sounds positively conspiratorial, right? It sounds like the kind of thing that would get you a temporary ban on Twitter if you posted about it. It sounds like the kind of thing that would be heavily fact-checked on Facebook.

The moral of this story is that if something is labeled an extremist right-wing conspiracy theory, maybe don’t be quite so quick to dismiss it.