A scathing inquiry by an inspector general has cast a shadow over the U.S. Postal Service’s surveillance initiative, iCOP, revealing that the agency has overstepped its legal boundaries by engaging in extensive intelligence gathering and surveillance activities on American protesters and others from 2018 to 2021.
The Office of Inspector General for the Postal Service launched a comprehensive investigation into iCOP, an acronym denoting the Internet Covert Operations Program. The investigation unveiled that specific proactive searches conducted by iCOP, utilizing an open-source intelligence tool between February and April 2021, transcended the legal jurisdiction granted to the Postal Inspection Service. According to the inspector general report dated March 25, 2022, “Furthermore, we could not corroborate whether other work analysts completed from October 2018 through June 2021 was legally authorized.”
The scrutiny into the program was ignited by revelations from a news outlet, which not only uncovered the covert program but also exposed its utilization of advanced technologies like facial recognition software and other sophisticated tools. These tools were employed to compile and disseminate reports outlining Americans’ online activities and expressions. An iCOP intelligence bulletin on American protesters dated March 16, 2021, gained widespread circulation, reaching law enforcement agencies at various levels, including state, local, and federal.
Lawmakers and constitutional experts raised their voices in outrage following the news outlet’s revelations. Questions were raised regarding the legality of the Postal Service’s actions in targeting and gathering data on American citizens who had no criminal suspicions against them and no connection to postal affairs. In 2021, I revealed the existence of the iCOP surveillance program, which deployed analysts to scour the internet for “inflammatory” posts related to nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. Subsequent reports unearthed further aspects of the program, exposing its covert activities without congressional oversight or awareness.
Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York and chair of the House Oversight Committee, voiced her concerns regarding the intelligence activities conducted by the Postal Service Inspection Service’s analytics team, especially pertaining to First Amendment rights. The inspector general’s audit validated these concerns, asserting that the analytics team’s use of open-source intelligence “exceeded the Postal Inspection Service’s law enforcement authority.”
Employing sophisticated technology and software, iCOP executed keyword searches, such as “protest,” on social media platforms, extending even to terms unrelated to postal matters. However, in April 2021, lawyers from the Postal Inspection Service intervened, instructing iCOP to eliminate the term “protest” from its keyword searches to safeguard constitutional rights.
Frank Albergo, president of the Postal Police Officers Association, expressed that the Postal Inspection Service had deviated from its mission. He remarked, “At this point, they might as well take their mission statement of protecting the Postal Service and its employees and throw it in the garbage,” emphasizing that the agency’s attention was inadequately directed towards the “mail theft epidemic” plaguing postal property concurrently.
The 26-page inspector general’s report concluded that the post office lacked the legal authority to compile reports on Americans involved in the sweeping Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. The report additionally exposed widespread violations of statutory and legal authority, ranging from a lack of legal basis to noncompliance with federal records retention requirements and the deployment of facial recognition software. The absence of a robust record-keeping policy to ensure legal compliance was also highlighted.
Central to the report was the recurring emphasis on the necessity for a “postal nexus” in the Postal Service’s surveillance endeavors, demanding a link to mail, postal crimes, or the security of postal facilities or personnel. The report underscored that the keywords employed in iCOP’s proactive searches did not include terms associated with a postal nexus. Moreover, the nexus was absent in 122 requests and 18 reports due to the absence of program procedures. This deficiency was attributed to the exclusion of the Postal Inspection Service’s Office of Counsel in the development of iCOP and its related protocols.
In response to the inspector general’s findings and recommendations, which called for a thorough review and restructuring of the program and its analyst division, the Postal Service’s leadership contested many of the report’s conclusions. They argued that the agency possessed the authority to carry out extensive surveillance and intelligence collection on U.S. citizens without requiring a nexus to the post office. Nevertheless, the Postal Service pledged to review certain policies following an internal assessment, as recommended by the inspector general.
Expressing their viewpoint, the Postal Inspection Service vehemently disagreed with the overarching conclusion that it exceeded its legal authority. The response from the agency was incorporated into the inspector general’s report.
Representative Maloney endorsed the inspector general’s recommendations, advocating for a comprehensive evaluation of the responsibilities, activities, and procedures of the Analytics Team within the Postal Service. The results of this investigation are keenly awaited.