Facial recognition, fake identities and digital surveillance tools: Inside the post office's covert internet operations program

·Contributor
·8-min read

The post office’s law enforcement arm has faced intense congressional scrutiny in recent weeks over its Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP), which tracks social media posts of Americans and shares that information with other 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, according to interviews and documents reviewed by Yahoo News.

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 “to help identify unknown targets in an investigation or locate additional social media accounts for known individuals,” according to materials reviewed by Yahoo News.

Face recognition system
Getty Images

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.

The Inspection Service’s expansive surveillance program has raised concerns among lawmakers and privacy and civil liberties experts, and the use of sophisticated software tools raises even more questions.

“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service appears to be putting significant resources into covert monitoring of social media and the creation and use of undercover accounts. If these efforts are directed toward surveilling lawful protesters, the public and Congress need to know why this is happening, under what authority and subject to what kinds of oversight and protections,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Liberty & National Security Program of the Brennan Center for Justice.

In response to queries from Yahoo News, the Inspection Service defended the iCOP program. “This review of publicly available open source information, including news reports and social media, is one piece of a comprehensive security and threat analysis, and the information obtained is the same information anyone can access as a private citizen,” wrote a spokesperson for the inspection service. “News report and social media listening activity helps protect the 644,000 men and women who work for the Postal Service by ensuring they are able to avoid potentially volatile situations while working to process and deliver the nation’s mail every day.”

The spokesperson referred to the software used by iCOP as “standard law enforcement techniques and tools, which are strictly controlled relative to the investigation of criminal suspects and criminal activities.”

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In a statement to Yahoo News, Clearview AI, the facial recognition company, said it is “honored to work with over 3,100 law enforcement agencies around the United States to help them identify countless criminals, from pedophiles, serial fraudsters, and murderers. Clearview AI is not a real-time surveillance system, but an after-the-fact investigative tool, and only collects publicly available information from the internet.”

Last month, Yahoo News revealed that iCOP assigns its analysts to patrol social media to look for information on upcoming protests and search for potential threats of violence. 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.

According to the interviews and new documents reviewed by Yahoo News, the genesis of iCOP appears to date back to 2018, when the U.S. Postal Inspection Service expanded and rebranded its “cybercrime dark web” program into a broader covert operation.

“As the criminal use of the ‘Dark Web’ marketplaces has grown and affected investigative assignments across the agency, we are re-branding the program to encompass all online covert operations beyond ‘Dark Web’ marketplaces to include publicly accessible web sites and private sites,” says an internal description of the change. 

The internal document goes on to state that as of Oct. 28, 2018, iCOP “will be responsible for overseeing all internet undercover operations policies and procedures, managing the identities of undercover operators and administering technology used to facilitate internet undercover operational security. This program will also be responsible for intelligence analysis and reporting related to all covert internet and undercover online investigations.”

Protesters march in downtown Brooklyn
Protesters march in Brooklyn in June 2020 over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Beginning last spring, following the death of George Floyd, iCOP analysts began monitoring social media to track potential violence at racial justice protests. After the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol by Trump supporters, the analysts turned their attention to right-wing accounts, according to documents, including an intelligence bulletin previously obtained and published by Yahoo News.

iCOP’s intelligence bulletins are entered into the intelligence sharing portal of the Department of Homeland Security, where they are disseminated to law enforcement, government, task forces and DHS fusion centers, according to DHS and USPIS documents reviewed by Yahoo News. The portal also stores USPIS and iCOP intelligence bulletins for future access and use by law enforcement or government agencies. The retention and dissemination of these reports could allow federal agencies to receive information they are not allowed by statute to collect themselves.

One question is whether the post office's authority exceeds that of agencies like the DHS and the FBI, according to Geoffrey Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

“Although it seems sensible that the Postal Service has a legitimate interest in protecting its employees, one question is whether it is in fact authorized to take the steps it is pursuing in order to do this,” he told Yahoo News. “Another question is whether, even if they are authorized to do this in order to protect the Postal Service, are they doing so in ways that are consistent with the Fourth and First Amendments?”

The use of social media by law enforcement has become a hot-button issue in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. But the public debate and recent congressional hearings have focused on the FBI and the DHS as they seek to redefine their authorities and programs in this arena to better position themselves to identify and thwart a future similar attack.

While privacy and civil liberties experts expressed outrage over the Postal Service’s surveillance of social media, Republicans have more publicly seized on the issue, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is currently under investigation for violating sex trafficking laws, introduced a bill to defund iCOP altogether. 

Matt Gaetz
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, the Inspection Service gave separate closed-door briefings to Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight Committee. According to sources familiar with both briefings, the Republicans were presented with a dramatic video of a mail truck engulfed in flames near Minneapolis following the killing of Floyd, as an explanation of why iCOP pivoted to monitoring potential violence at protests.

Republicans were told social media surveillance of protests was prompted by the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in response to Floyd’s death. That video was not part of the briefing for Democrats.

Democrats, who historically have taken up privacy and surveillance issues, have until now remained publicly silent on iCOP, but told Yahoo News they are seeking more answers.

"Democrats are concerned about First Amendment activity and making sure there’s not improper surveillance going on, but we don’t have enough information,” a Democratic committee staffer told Yahoo News. “We want to better understand the scope of what is being analyzed, reviewed, collected, and how and what precisely is being shared and with whom, and their justifications.”

These questions also reflect the larger issues the Biden administration is grappling with as it works to shape new domestic counterterrorism strategy and policy across government. One of the issues being looked at is how different federal agencies, which all operate under specific narrow authorities and jurisdictions, share intelligence collected on social media and how much of that intelligence gets filtered down to state and local partners.

According to the documents reviewed by Yahoo News, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is part of a Homeland Security intelligence-sharing network that includes, among others, the National Security Agency.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

United States Postal Service (USPS) workers
U.S. Postal Service workers load mail for delivery in Royal Oak, Mich. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

There is fierce debate about the privacy and civil liberties implications of the government’s use of social media to identify threats. This work naturally butts up against the First Amendment, as threats can emerge quickly from protected speech and association, such as protests.

The debate is intensifying as the Biden administration’s review of domestic violent extremism is expected to be released in the coming weeks. It is unclear how or if iCOP will be affected by that review.

“What is important is that people who do intelligence coordination work within government are conscious about where they need to be careful because of law, policy guidelines or whatever it might be,” a senior administration official told Yahoo News when asked about the Postal Service program. “The answer can’t just be that all information goes to everyone, because that’s not consistent with different authorities and that’s not consistent with certain protections. And the answer can’t be that it goes to no one, because that doesn’t help us protect Americans.

“The answer has to be more complicated than that,” the senior official said, “as it is in other areas.”

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