Yahoo News released a story on April 21, reporting that the United States Postal Service has been using the legal and law enforcement arm of its operation to track and collect Americans’ social media posts. The program is known as iCOP or Internet Covert Operations Program and is searching for “inflammatory” posts that may be inciting public protests, according to the original news break by Yahoo. Information that they gather is distributed to other government departments.
Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale briefed the House Oversight Committee and confirmed the existence of the “incident-related program” on March 28. He claimed he did not know how much money was going into the program. According to a statement released by the U.S. Postal Service, “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.”
iCOP monitored “significant activity” at home and abroad on March 16 in preparation for a March 20 event, World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy. Information like locations and times of planned protests was found on right-leaning apps like Parler and Telegram and sent to the Department of Homeland Security. Some posts that were tagged called protesters to use the events to engage in “fights” and “do serious damage.”
Facebook and Parler were among the social media platforms being used to track down people who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the capital, initiating conversations about the security of phones, social media and other areas people assume are private. Parler was removed from the app store, Amazon and Google following the Capitol riot. Parler will be reinstated to the app store soon, according to Apple, as they have engaged in multiple conversations about the community guidelines and they instated updates and new moderation practices.
Ria Coffey, junior criminal justice major, commented on the use of the term “law enforcement arm” by the USPS. “Most Americans when they hear law enforcement arm will think of police. So, they will add it to the list of things that officers are doing wrong,” Coffey said. “But most police officers that are well-trained and well-intentioned—and I would say that’s a majority—are going to believe really strongly in your Constitutional rights. That’s what they are out there to defend. They are the front lines for people’s Constitutional rights.” Coffey said that most of the police officers that she has met are libertarians and strongly believe in the rights of the individual, including privacy.
“The improper use of that term aside, it makes sense that the Department of Defense would be involved in public safety by scanning social media, but I don’t understand how the USPS is logically involved,” Coffey continued. “People that are in positions to protect national security have the authority to be looking out, but in no way the agency that delivers our mail should be involved in issues of national security,” she said. “Privacy is a right; however, there is a balance. We can’t just say that nobody can access social media for any reason because there are issues of national security that can generate on social media.”
Postal workers were considered essential workers during the initial lockdown of the pandemic but were blamed for election fraud come the November election. USPS reported a $2.2 billion loss by June, according to Daily Mail.
With increasing news of what kind of information is being gathered from all kinds of online media, social media users across the globe are becoming more aware of the dangers of sharing online. Terms of service are often overlooked when they include permission to sell data to advertisers. Even traditionally unexpected social platforms like dating apps can be used to find criminals, as happened to one New York man who bragged about attending the Jan. 6 insurrection on the dating app Bumble.
In 2018, a Pew study found that “91% of Americans ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that people have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by all kinds of entities. Meanwhile, 72% of Americans use social media and the number is constantly increasing. Increased usage should correlate with increased vigilance of the power of communicating online, as well as the jurisdiction of social media platforms to share information as they see fit.
Photo courtesy of Ethan Hoover