The House Oversight Committee is asking for an investigation into the Postal Service’s surveillance of Americans’ social media posts about protests, following a series of reports by Yahoo News about the program.
The bipartisan request for an investigation into the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s covert internet surveillance program, known as iCOP, was sent Monday by committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney and ranking member James Comer, according to the letter requesting the review.
A copy of the letter was obtained by Yahoo News.
“We write to express concern about recent press reports that the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) has been using analysts from its Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) to perform intelligence operations on First Amendment activity,” the letter states.
“According to these [Yahoo News] reports, iCOP analysts have been monitoring social media sites to look for posts that are ‘inflammatory’ and then sharing details about the posts and individuals who posted the information with other federal law enforcement agencies. USPIS confirmed this practice in recent briefings with Committee staff,” the letter continues.
“These activities raise serious questions about the scope of the program, the extent of sharing of information among law enforcement agencies, and whether USPIS has the authority to conduct such an operation.”
The letter says the Postal Service has told the committee it has put certain safeguards in place and is reviewing other ways to protect First Amendment activities. “Nevertheless, significant questions about iCOP remain,” the lawmakers write. “For these reasons, we respectfully request that you perform an evaluation of iCOP.”
Yahoo News first reported last month that the law enforcement arm of the post office was using iCOP to surveil social media posts of Americans. The Department of Homeland Security then distributed iCOP’s intelligence bulletins to local, state and federal law enforcement and terrorism task forces across the country.
The letter comes after Democrats and Republicans on the Oversight Committee received separate briefings on the program in the wake of Yahoo News’ reporting. While a number of Republicans have spoken out to express concerns about iCOP, the bipartisan letter marks the first time that Democrats have publicly jumped into the fray.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service did not immediately respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment. U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General confirmed it had received the letter and is reviewing the request.
Republicans were told by the chief postal inspector that iCOP began surveilling protests in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and then continued to target Black Lives Matter protests that erupted last summer and continued through the fall. Their briefing included video footage of a mail truck burning during demonstrations outside Minneapolis.
Democrats on the same committee received a different briefing, which included no video, and was focused on threats to the postmaster general and iCOP’s work investigating and interrupting the sale of opioids over the dark web and shipped through the mail system.
Last week, Yahoo News reported that iCOP was using sophisticated and controversial facial recognition software, Clearview AI, to identify social media accounts of people under investigation.
This has raised concerns from civil liberties advocates and privacy experts who questioned the targeting of constitutionally protected speech and association by the Postal Service. Constitutional law experts also raised questions about whether the Postal Service has the authority in its mandate to conduct this sort of sweeping surveillance.
“Whether they think they have authority or not, it’s wholly inappropriate for the post office to be monitoring protests, it falls so far beyond their mandate,” Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty & National Security Program of the Brennan Center for Justice, told Yahoo news.
In its letter sent on Monday, the Oversight Committee echoed those concerns.
The committee is asking the postal inspector general to launch a comprehensive analysis of the iCOP program, including looking at what authorities are used to conduct iCOP. It asks the inspector general to tell the committee by June 4 whether it will perform the requested review and provide a timeline for initiation and completion.
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