Civil liberties group sues to end post office surveillance program

Postal service trucks. (Nati Harnik/AP)
U.S. Postal Service trucks. (Nati Harnik/AP)

WASHINGTON — A privacy and civil liberties nonprofit is asking a federal judge to order the post office to suspend its Internet Covert Operations Program and to cease and desist from using facial recognition and social media surveillance tools or collecting personal information until it conducts a privacy impact assessment required by law.

The United States Postal Service and its law enforcement arm, the United States Postal Inspection Service, “have unlawfully initiated the Internet Covert Operations Program, procured and used facial recognition and social media monitoring tools under the iCOP, and used facial recognition and social media monitoring tools to initiate or significantly modify collections of personal information under the iCOP without first conducting and publishing the full and complete Privacy Impact Assessment,” states the complaint, filed on Thursday in Washington, D.C., by the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“EPIC is suing the Postal Service to halt the agency’s unchecked surveillance of ordinary Americans and to challenge its failure to comply with basic privacy protections established by the E-Government Act,” EPIC law fellow Jake Wiener told Yahoo News.

“EPIC intends to end the Postal Service’s unlawful use of facial recognition and social media monitoring tools, and we expect the court to enforce the agency’s legal privacy obligations,” he continued. “We hope Congress will also take action to prohibit the Postal Service from engaging in this type of surveillance and to dramatically improve surveillance oversight across federal agencies.”

Government agencies are required by law to conduct and publish a privacy impact statement when they launch new information collection programs. EPIC’s complaint cites Wiener’s months-long attempts to locate a privacy impact assessment related to iCOP.

He was eventually told by the post office that no such assessment exists.

“By using social media analysis and covert intelligence gathering software to collect social media accounts, posts, and identifying information, Defendants undertook new collections of personally identifiable information,” EPIC says in the complaint.

“To date, Defendants have not conducted or published a Privacy Impact Assessment concerning the Internet Covert Operations Program, the facial recognition and social media monitoring tools procured and used under iCOP, or the collection of personal information initiated under iCOP.”

The nonprofit advocacy group says iCOP’s operation without this assessment is illegal, and that is why it is seeking an injunction.

“Under iCOP, the Postal Service has gone far beyond its mandate and used advanced surveillance tools to monitor political activity with no public notice or meaningful oversight,” said Wiener. “A secret surveillance program hidden in the Postal Service’s law enforcement arm is both illegal and prone to abuse.”

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service told Yahoo News it does "not comment on matters involving pending litigation."

In April, Yahoo News revealed the existence of iCOP, which had been collecting Americans’ social media posts about upcoming protests and sharing that information with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies across the country. The Department of Homeland Security widely distributed the Postal Inspection Service’s March iCOP bulletin that featured what it described as “inflammatory” posts about upcoming domestic protests.

Critics raised questions about the surveillance of speech protected by the First Amendment, and concerns about the government storing and disseminating intelligence it was not authorized to collect.

Yahoo News also reported in May that iCOP was using controversial and intrusive Clearview AI facial recognition and other types of technology to identify and track social media users.

The House Oversight Committee then asked the post office’s inspector general to conduct an official investigation into the program, which had been operating without congressional knowledge. That probe remains ongoing and is expected to be completed in late fall.

“Americans expect the Postal Service to deliver their mail, not to surveil them at protests or track them on social media,” said Wiener, the EPIC law fellow.


Read more from Yahoo News: