Is every federal agency a surveillance unit now? With a plethora of law enforcement and intelligence agencies deputized to monitor American communications, it seems insane to think that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) would also be enlisted for this task. But indeed it has been, as Yahoo News revealed earlier this year. Now, new details have emerged about the postal service's Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP), including the fact that the agency has been using facial recognition software from Clearview AI and has a specific program to monitor people posting about protests.
As part of the iCOP program, postal service employees have been monitoring Americans' social media posts and sharing things they deem suspicious with law enforcement agencies. "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," writes Yahoo News' Jana Winter:
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.
Other tools employed by the Inspection Service include Zignal Labs' software, which it uses to run keyword searches on social media event pages to identify potential threats from upcoming scheduled protests, according to Inspection Service documents. It also uses Nfusion, another software program, to create and maintain anonymous, untraceable email and social media accounts.
USPS has defended its practices by saying that it's simply part of keeping postal workers safe. But the agency's internal communications raise doubts:
The iCOP intelligence bulletin obtained and published by Yahoo News targeted protests planned by largely right-wing groups and discussed on Facebook, Twitter and Parler.
iCOP found no credible threats, but compiled what it described as "inflammatory" posts.
The iCOP program has also monitored protests associated with Black Lives Matter and racial justice, according to Yahoo News.
"Why has the USPS been using anything other than intelligence from the Department of Justice for monitoring events which may pose risks to normal mail delivery? Why were these resources used to monitor First Amendment-protected protest rallies like those in the wake of George Floyd's death last year?" asks Rayne at national security and civil liberties blog emptywheel.
Postal service surveillance reports are uploaded to a portal run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and shared with task forces, surveillance centers, law enforcement units, and government agencies across the country—including the National Security Agency—as well as stored for future access.
"The retention and dissemination of these reports could allow federal agencies to receive information they are not allowed by statute to collect themselves," Winter suggests.
Whether the USPS is actually authorized to undertake such surveillance and reporting is not clear, let alone whether it is doing so in ways respectful of free speech and due process rights.
Some members of Congress have been skeptical of the Postal Service's iCOP program.
"I do not doubt that @USPS has some legitimate law enforcement responsibilities (theft, fraud, etc) but shoehorning in a massive social media surveillance operation using AI facial recognition software under the guise of a loosely-defined homeland security mission is just insane," tweeted Rep. Peter Meijer (R–Mich.) yesterday.
"Like all Americans, I am skeptical when any government agency pries into our personal and private lives under the guise of rooting out 'threats.' But for such an invasion of privacy to be carried out by the Post Office, of all agencies, is a major concern," wrote Rep. Nancy Mace (R–S.C.) in an April op-ed.
On April 30, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.) introduced a bill "to prohibit funds from being used to implement the Internet Covert Operations Program under the United States Postal Inspection Service." It has attracted nine co-sponsors so far—all Republicans.
Congressional Democrats have been largely silent about the issue.
Three things that aren't as bad as they seem. In an interview with Reason, Scott Winship of the American Enterprise Institute casts doubt on conventional wisdom about fertility rates, income inequality, and economic mobility. Americans "have always been suckers for declension narratives—the idea that the Golden Age ended sometime in the past and we have the bad luck to live in a world that is uniquely awful, unfair, and corrupt," notes Reason's Nick Gillespie:
Three of today's most widespread declension narratives involve fertility rates, income inequality, and economic mobility. We have fewer children than ever, goes the popular story, because nobody—even the wealthy!—can afford them anymore. The spread between rich and poor has never been bigger and it's only increasing. Kids today will be the first generation in America to have a lower standard of living than their parents.
But according to Winship, these narratives are misleading to just plain false. Listen to his interview with Gillespie here.
Tennessee bans certain sorts of health care for transgender teens. "The move makes Tennessee just the second state in the United States to enact such a ban after Arkansas approved a similar version earlier this year over a veto from Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson," says ABC News. The new Tennessee law would ban doctors from providing hormone treatments or puberty blockers to anyone under age 18, in addition to prohibiting minors from receiving sex reassignment surgeries.
• Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law an anti-abortion measure that makes abortion illegal about two weeks after a woman first misses her period due to pregnancy and lets anyone who thinks the rules have been breached sue abortion providers plus those suspected of abetting them.
• A new coronavirus that transmits from animals to humans has been found in some Malaysian patients. "The patients had what looked like regular pneumonia," reports NPR. "But in eight out of 301 samples tested, or 2.7%, Xui and Gray found that the patients' upper respiratory tracts were infected with a new canine coronavirus — a dog virus."
• Utah will ban schools from requiring that students wear masks.
• "Arrest warrants have been issued for two former Colorado police officers in connection with the violent arrest last year of a 73-year-old woman with dementia," reports CNN.
• The return of Satanic Panic.
• RIP Internet Explorer.