The program ‘includes analysts who assume fake identities online, use sophisticated intelligence tools, and employ facial recognition software.”
Last month, Yahoo News ripped the lid off of a government surveillance program run by a division of the USPS. The program monitors, scans, and collects information on social media postings considered “inflammatory” enough to pass along to other government agencies. It includes posts promoting the coordination and planning of upcoming political demonstrations.
The program’s existence came out after the news outlet obtained a copy of a March USPS bulletin that was “distributed through the Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers.” It warned of the possibility of violence at upcoming protests though they acknowledged they had no reliable intelligence to suggest any alleged threats were legitimate:
“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,” says the March 16 government bulletin, marked as “law enforcement sensitive” and distributed through the Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers. “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.”
“No intelligence is available to suggest the legitimacy of these threats,” it adds.
The bulletin includes screenshots of posts about the protests from Facebook, Parler, Telegram and other social media sites. Individuals mentioned by name include one alleged Proud Boy and several others whose identifying details were included but whose posts did not appear to contain anything threatening.
“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 says.
The report about the previously unknown iCOP sparked an outcry among Congressional Republicans. A House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing was held a week later where a USPS official confirmed its existence without going into a lot of detail:
USPS Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale confirmed to lawmakers that the agency is running a shadowy operation dubbed the Internet Covert Operations Program, which tracks “inflammatory” posts on Facebook, Parler and other sites, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-South Carolina) told The Daily Mail.
Barksdale told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that the initiative has netted no arrests and will continue despite privacy concerns, which arose after the program was revealed publicly last week, the outlet reported.
Barksdale said the operation — which reports threatening posts to local and federal law enforcement — is overseen by a USPS executive. But he claimed it’s not a real “program” because it’s “incident-related,” not an ongoing initiative, according to the outlet.
This week, Yahoo News filed a new report detailing more information they’d learned about iCOP. The outlet noted that “the program is much broader in scope than previously known”:
Yet the program is much broader in scope than previously known and includes analysts who assume fake identities online, use sophisticated intelligence tools and employ facial recognition software, according to interviews and documents reviewed by Yahoo News.
Among the tools used by the analysts is Clearview AI, a facial recognition software that scrapes images off public websites, a practice that has raised the ire of privacy advocates. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service uses Clearview’s facial recognition database of over 3 billion images from arrest photos collected from across social media “to help identify unknown targets in an investigation or locate additional social media accounts for known individuals,” according to materials reviewed by Yahoo News.
According to the interviews and new documents reviewed by Yahoo News, the genesis of iCOP appears to date back to 2018, when the U.S. Postal Inspection Service expanded and rebranded its “cybercrime dark web” program into a broader covert operation.
“As the criminal use of the ‘Dark Web’ marketplaces has grown and affected investigative assignments across the agency, we are re-branding the program to encompass all online covert operations beyond ‘Dark Web’ marketplaces to include publicly accessible web sites and private sites,” says an internal description of the change.
Analysts with iCOP closely monitored social media postings once the Antifa/BLM-led protests and riots started after the death of George Floyd last year. Likewise, they closely tracked right-wing posts on Twitter, Parler, and other social media platforms after the Jan. 6th Capitol riots.
When asked to explain and defend the existence of the program, the USPS told Yahoo News in a statement that the goal of iCOP was to protect USPS employees and its infrastructure:
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is the primary law enforcement, crime prevention, and security arm of the U.S. Postal Service,” the statement said. “As such, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has federal law enforcement officers, Postal Inspectors, who enforce approximately 200 federal laws to achieve the agency’s mission: protect the U.S. Postal Service and its employees, infrastructure, and customers; enforce the laws that defend the nation’s mail system from illegal or dangerous use; and ensure public trust in the mail.”
“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.
Based on what is now known about the surveillance program, however, it would appear that iCOP’s scope has gone way beyond merely monitoring potential threats to employees and infrastructure and has understandably raised serious privacy concerns. Expect more hearings on this matter in the coming months, especially in light of the Democrat-led push to keep the “insurrection” narrative alive via umpteen overlapping Congressional “investigations” into the Capitol riots going into the 2022 elections.