- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the U.S. Postal Service on Thursday over its internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) that allegedly surveilled Americans’ social media accounts.

The privacy group’s lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to bar the USPS from using social media surveillance tools and facial recognition technology until a privacy assessment is completed.

Accusations that the U.S. Postal Inspection Service snooped on Americans’ social media accounts via iCOP emerged earlier this year following Yahoo! News’ publication of a bulletin revealing iCOP analysts monitoring “right-wing Parler and Telegram accounts” ahead of planned protests.

The bulletin also indicated iCOP analysts observed users on Facebook and Twitter.

EPIC wants the federal government to conduct and publish a privacy impact assessment and to prevent iCOP’s collection of personal information until such an assessment is finished and made public.

Following unsuccessful attempts to obtain any such assessment, EPIC sued both agencies in federal court Thursday.

“Defendants have unlawfully (1) initiated the Internet Covert Operations Program, (2) procured and used facial recognition and social media monitoring tools under the iCOP, and (3) 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(s) required by section 208(b) of the E-Government Act,” read EPIC’s lawsuit.

EPIC senior counsel John Davisson said just because Postal Service employees can watch Americans on social media does not mean they ought to collect information such as a user’s image.

“It seems likely that an investigative agency like iCOP has accessed private information on social media platforms at least once,” said Mr. Davisson in an email. “But of course the basis for our suit is that the Postal Service has unlawfully withheld the details of its surveillance activities, so it’s hard to know with any certainty.”

Congress has also previously sought information on the iCOP program. In April, Chief Postal Inspector Gary R. Barksdale privately briefed lawmakers on iCOP’s actions.

Mr. Barksdale told lawmakers that the Postal Service expanded the covert program last year as threats to Postal Service employees, facilities, and leadership increased, according to Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the top-ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Mr. Comer and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat and the panel’s chairwoman, then wrote in May to Postal Service Inspector General Tammy L. Whitcomb requesting an investigation.

The Postal Service did not respond to a request for comment Thursday from The Washington Times.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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