Surveillance Going Postal–USPS’ Ever Growing Spy Role Expands to Internet Traffic

On April 21, investigative reporter Jana Winters broke the news that the United States Postal service was running a “covert operations program” that was monitoring American’s social media. She found that the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) was trawling posts and online activity pertaining to a number of planned protests as part of a “World Wide Rally for Freedom and Democracy.” 

The subjects of the protest ranged from “everything from lockdown measures to 5G.” This story has to be one of the most alarming new chapters in the growth of America’s surveillance state—a creature, it needs to be pointed out, of both major political parties. The implications for the First Amendment freedoms of all Americans are dire.

Winters reports of how an iCOP bulletin included posts from the social media platforms, Facebook, Parler and Telegram. The USPIS maintains that since the posts were public the posts are fair game. In the article, privacy law expert Rachel Levinson-Waldman questioned the legality of this, saying, “If the individuals they’re monitoring are carrying out or planning criminal activity, that should be the purview of the FBI. . . .If they’re simply engaging in lawfully protected speech, even if it’s odious or objectionable, then monitoring them on that basis raises serious constitutional concerns.”

This new story perfectly illustrates what economist and historian Robert Higgs calls the “ratchet effect” (Crisis and Leviathan): grant an “obviously needed” new power to even the most mundane government agency—which then never gives its granted power back but relentlessly seeks to expand its reach—and you wake up, one day, in an unfree society. 

Postal services and government surveillance have historically gone together like peanut butter and jelly. The practice of having a “cabinet noir” (black room) in French post offices to intercept messages was so ubiquitous under King Louis XIII that the term “cabinet noir” has become a term for surveillance hubs among privacy activists. 

America’s first peacetime intelligence agency and the predecessor of the NSA, the Cipher Bureau, was even nicknamed the “Black Chamber” during its time of operation from 1919-1929. It was eventually closed by Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who wrote to ambassadors afterward, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” 

During the World Wars, the Postal Service was again a tool of broad censorship. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 penalized criticisms of the government. During World War I, postal censorship was organized under the Central Censorship Board who would open mail that was destined for Latin American or Asian countries. American mail destined for Europe or Africa was handled by British intelligence.

After America’s entrance into World War II, the Office of Censorship was created by FDR to surveil communications going into and out of the United States. With a staff of over 14,000 personnel, the Office’s broad reach included hubs in Panama, American Samoa, and the U.S Virgin Islands.

While the post office and high-tech surveillance would appear to have little connection with one another, this would not be the first time the USPS has experimented with tracking communications in the internet age. The USPS’s own reporting boasts of its role of policing the dark web and also reviewing the contents of physical hard drives. 

The USPS also maintains a “mail cover” tracking program for letters. The program made information about letters available to law enforcement upon request and without a warrant. According to a FOIA request, back in 1984, there were 9,022 instances of the use of mail cover. In 2000 there were 14,077 uses. Now mail covers are used on virtually every single piece of postal mail. Information collected by the program largely pertained to data appearing on the outside of a mailpiece, or the metadata if you will. 

This is effectively the same type of surveillance that got the NSA in hot water and what the Ninth Circuit U.S. The Court of Appeals ruled was illegal and likely unconstitutional. Yet, little has been done to review the USPS’ surveillance practices. Unfortunately, many abuses have already taken place. In 2012, a Maricopa County Supervisor in Arizona won a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of whom she was an outspoken critic. It was found that “Sheriff Joe” was tracking her mail using the mail cover system. A 1970s Senate panel found that the CIA was using open mail going to and from the Soviet Union. In 1973 high schoolers in New Jersey were tracked by the FBI after sending a letter to the Socialist Workers Party. 

What this latest scandal shows is that even the most mundane of government agencies may try to spy on you and the end result of mission creep is a surveillance state. Recently, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and other House Republicans introduced legislation to end funding for iCOP

For more information on the history of surveillance in the United States, including how surveillance was used to root out political activists, see Anthony Gregory’s book American Surveillance, Intelligence, Privacy, and the Fourth Amendment

The author would like to thank Christopher B. Briggs for his contributions. 

Jonathan Hofer is a Research Associate at the Independent Institute. He has written extensively on both California and national public policy issues. He holds a BA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include privacy law, student privacy, local surveillance, and the impact of emerging technologies on civil liberties.
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