Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) recently introduced the USPIS Surveillance Protection Act, legislation that would defund the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP), an initiative of the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPS) that, among other things, gathers intelligence from U.S. citizens' social media posts. Under this program, yet another federal agency is assuming the disturbing power to surveil broad swaths of Americans’ digital communications.
Documents reveal that the USPS used the iCOP program to monitor social media content that revealed the when and where of planned protests and other posts it found “inflammatory.” The program was also used to monitor conservative-leaning social media sites for potential violent activity by groups like the Proud Boys. You don’t have to defend the extreme views of some of these groups to feel the tug of the slippery slope.
Rep. Gaetz called the program a “clandestine domestic surveillance program,” saying, “The USP Inspection Service is operating outside of its USPS jurisdiction when it monitors internet users’ sharing of information.”
The government is no stranger to using the mail service to spy on American citizens. In May, PPSA wrote that agencies often obtain so-called “mail covers,” photo images of mail envelopes. Such analog-style “metadata” can give any interested party information about whom you are writing to and who is writing back. Between 2010 to 2014, postal inspectors and law enforcement agencies requested more than 135,000 mail covers. Among the top agencies requesting mail covers were the IRS, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security.
PPSA is pleased to see Rep. Gaetz’ bill begin to address the widespread practice of federal monitoring of Americans’ internet posts. In the era of digital communications, it is worrying to see the USPS transition from a postal to a surveillance agency. Congress must take steps to reign in this covert and lesser-known form of government spying now.