This was reported by Jana Winter in Yahoo!News on April 21, 2021:
The law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service has been quietly running a program that tracks and collects Americans’ social media posts, including those about planned protests, according to a document obtained by Yahoo News.
The details of the surveillance effort, known as iCOP, or Internet Covert Operations Program, have not previously been made public. The work involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what the document describes as “inflammatory” postings and then sharing that information across government agencies.
“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.”
A number of groups were expected to gather in cities around the globe on March 20 as part of a World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy, to protest everything from lockdown measures to 5G. “Parler users have commented about their intent to use the rallies to engage in violence. Image 3 on the right is a screenshot from Parler indicating two users discussing the event as an opportunity to engage in a ‘fight’ and to ‘do serious damage,’” says the bulletin.
“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 government’s monitoring of Americans’ social media is the subject of ongoing debate inside and outside government, particularly in recent months, following a rise in domestic unrest. While posts on platforms such as Facebook and Parler have allowed law enforcement to track down and arrest rioters who assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6, such data collection has also sparked concerns about the government surveilling peaceful protesters or those engaged in protected First Amendment activities.
When contacted by Yahoo News, civil liberties experts expressed alarm at the post office’s surveillance program. “It’s a mystery,” said University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, whom President Barack Obama appointed to review the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. “I don’t understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues.”
I worked for the USPS in the 1950s as a “temporary substitute clerk” during vacations, holidays, and weekends when I was in college and med school. I took and passed a Civil Service test for the privilege and enjoyed the change of pace and the work itself.
The post office where I worked served a mid-sized industrial city of around 90,000. Throughout the building were concealed passageways with peepholes every few feet; even the toilets had them. Access was through an inconspicuous dedicated door on the outside of the building. Holding the key to the door were Postal Inspectors, the same kind of law officers who are now running iCOP and peeping into the social media of suspected domestic terrorists and violent extremists.
Back then, the peepholes served the purpose of deterring unauthorized access or theft of the US Mail. They worked the same way as the panopticon design in prisons before electronic surveillance.
In this article, Professor Stone wonders why the government would go to the Postal Service for this kind of monitoring. I would suggest that the government did not go to the Postal Service, but that it was something the Postal Service initiated on its own, and that this kind of behavior is part of the culture of its Inspection Service. If systemic racism is part of being white, it is possible that systemic voyeurism is part of being a Postal Inspector.
Panopticon – a concept of prison design involving a circular structure.
A panopticon has an outer ring of cells containing inmates, with each cell facing a central hub containing at least one corrections officer, in such a way that the corrections officer can observe all the inmates, but they cannot see him observing them.
The idea of the panopticon was that the mere possibility of being observed would deter inmates from doing something naughty like sawing through the bars or digging tunnels. Circular prisons were built throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
The brick-and-mortar panopticon became obsolete when video surveillance replaced direct visual observation. However, the metaphor remains useful for surveillance states such as the People’s Republic of China, with its innovative social credit scores.
Domestic terrorism – the deliberate use of violence against citizens or government officials of one’s own country to bring attention to a political cause.
In conventional terrorism, such as that perpetrated by jihadists, the actions involve physical violence, explosives, and property destruction. Domestic terrorism, as perpetrated by the New Left in the 1960s and Puerto Rican separatists in the 1970s, was similarly violent in the conventional sense.
Domestic violence by the political right, on the other hand, is more nuanced and nonphysical; it is more emotional or epistemic. It can include anything that triggers an unpleasant or uncomfortable response of anxiety, anger, fear, hate, or disgust in a progressive. Some examples include:
- inflammatory speech;
- divisive social media tweets or other posts;
- failing to give trigger warnings;
- inciting a protest, demonstration, or riot;
- using the word fight in political rhetoric;
- fomenting violence, hate, or racism;
- failing to denounce violence, hate, or racism;
- spreading misinformation or disinformation;
- disputing or challenging election results;
- promoting climate change denial; and
- endangering our democracy.
This expanded definition was used to describe the actions of President Donald Trump during the final weeks of his presidency and to label him and his supporters as domestic terrorists. It does not apply to the physical violence, property destruction, occupation of government property, arson, and looting by Black Lives Matter and antifa.
Note: Domestic terrorism is not to be confused with domestic violence.