A US Postal Service law enforcement program that has been monitoring social media for references to protests is pushing the boundaries of the agency’s authority, raising questions about the future of such surveillance activities .
Tracking by the US Postal Inspection Service’s online survey program coincided with Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and the Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol in 2021, according to government reports.
In some cases, it overstepped the agency’s legal powers over postal crimes, according to a recent watchdog. report by the USPS Office of Inspector General. The report calls for a review of the program by September.
Postal Inspection Service officials agreed to conduct a review, but disputed the main conclusion of the report. The service argued that its online searches need not be limited to terms directly related to postal crimes.
The inspector general released his oversight report in response to a request from Congress, where lawmakers showed bipartisan interest in tighter oversight of the Postal Crimes Unit’s online activities. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has questioned the scope and accountability of the USPS investigative program, asking whether additional checks are needed.
“There’s this fundamental disconnect” between the watchdog’s conclusion and the agency’s reaction, said Aaron Mackey, senior attorney for the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. Mackey called the investigative program a “fishing expedition” that raises privacy and civil liberties concerns for those caught up in intelligence gathering.
The EFF is to pursue the Postal Service for information about its social media monitoring activities. Little was known about the investigative program, established in 2018, before the surveillance report was released in March.
The law enforcement arm of the USPS is responsible for protecting its employees, operations and infrastructure from activities that could impact safety and security, according to a statement from the inspection service. postal.
The Postal Inspection Service “does not agree with the overall conclusion” of the inspector general’s report that the unit exceeded its powers and conducted improper intelligence searches, the statement said. “The activities carried out by the Postal Inspection Service were within its lawful authority, as provided by federal statutes and case law,” he said.
A link to postal law enforcement was not always made clear when the program used an unidentified intelligence tool to monitor social media and messaging platforms for keywords such as ” protest”, “attack” and “destroy”, the watchdog discovered. His report also says requests for assistance from a postal inspector, including 14 requests to use facial recognition technology, sometimes contained little or no explanation.
The Postal Inspection Service used Clearview AI facial recognition technology to help identify those suspected of criminal activity that took place in the summer of 2020 during a time of “civil unrest, riots or protests “, according to a separate report. review by the United States Government Accountability Office. This period coincided with nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against racial bias in policing and police violence.
The criminal activity involved included damage to U.S. Postal Service property, mail theft, mail opening, burglary of U.S. Postal Service buildings and arson, the GAO said.
The Postal Inspection Service also expressed interest in protests at the US Capitol in January 2021, when supporters of the former president
One of the service’s “situational awareness” intelligence bulletins highlights social media posts of individuals making a collective effort to archive data from the Jan. 6 protest on Capitol Hill. the newsletter notes that this type of data can help law enforcement analyze and identify those involved, while potentially helping to mitigate future violent protests.
A government transparency group called Property of the People made the bulletin public. Property of the People, which uses requests for records to obtain information, also published a postal inspection service newsletter focused on a website dedicated to the coordination of militia groups nationwide.
Bulletins like these raise questions about why the postal inspection service would conduct this type of intelligence gathering, said Cristin Monahanmember of the Cyber Vault at the George Washington University National Security Archives.
Yet most investigative requests and reports the Inspector General reviewed identified a so-called “postal link”, meaning they were within the service’s legal authority. “Unfortunately, the bulletins that are currently available to the public likely fall into the first category,” Monahan said.
Rejection of the program
The investigative effort was rebuffed by the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Clearinghouse, which for follow-up USPS for failing to implement and publish a formal privacy impact assessment before using social media monitoring tools and facial recognition technology.
EPIC argued that such an assessment is required by federal law that regulates the government’s use of the technology. The USPS countered that it was not subject to this law and said the nonprofit lacked standing to continue the evaluation. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently sided with the agency and dismissed the lawsuit.
The case “highlights how difficult it is to obtain reliable information and accountability for these surveillance activities”, said John Davison, Senior Advisor to EPIC. “There is very little transparency, few safeguards, and the accountability measures that exist for other agencies are difficult or impossible to enforce when it comes to the post office.”
The March report from the USPS Inspector General’s office came at the request of the chairman and senior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which sought more information from the Postal Inspection Service’s Online Investigation Unit after Yahoo News reported on its social media monitoring. The committee was concerned about the impact of intelligence gathering on First Amendment activity, such as the right to protest.
The inspector general’s report “clearly indicates that the committee’s concerns were justified,” the committee chair said.
“I can’t wait to see his result again,” she said.