The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service and its inspection agency seeking records about a covert program to “secretly comb through online posts of social media users before street protests, raising concerns about chilling the privacy and expressive activity of internet users.”
Under an initiative called Internet Covert Operations Program, analysts at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the Postal Service’s law enforcement arm, sorted through massive amounts of data created by social media users to surveil what they were saying and sharing, according to media reports. Internet users’ posts on Facebook, Twitter, Parler, and Telegraph were likely swept up in the surveillance program, EFF says.
USPIS has not disclosed details about the program or any records responding to EFF’s FOIA request asking for information about the creation and operation of the surveillance initiative. In addition to those records, EFF is also seeking records on the program’s policies and analysis of the information collected, and communications with other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), about the use of social media content gathered under the program.
By letter dated April 29, 2021, EFF submitted a FOIA request to USPIS via USPS’s online FOIA portal seeking a number of line items and by letter dated May 4, 2021, USPS stated that it was redirecting EFF’s FOIA request to the USPIS FOIA office. USPS later agreed to waive the fee for public records in the interest of public disclosure, but has not released a single document since.
The lawsuit asks a U.S. District Court to compel USPS to release the documents as requested.
“We’re filing this FOIA lawsuit to shine a light on why and how the Postal Service is monitoring online speech. This lawsuit aims to protect the right to protest,” said Houston Davidson, EFF public interest legal fellow. “The government has never explained the legal justifications for this surveillance. We’re asking a court to order the USPIS to disclose details about this speech-monitoring program, which threatens constitutional guarantees of free expression and privacy.”
Media reports revealed that a government bulletin dated March 16 was distributed across DHS’s state-run security threat centers, alerting law enforcement agencies that USPIS analysts monitored “significant activity regarding planned protests occurring internationally and domestically on March 20, 2021.” Protests around the country were planned for that day, and locations and times were being shared on Parler, Telegram, Twitter, and Facebook, the bulletin said.
“Monitoring and gathering people’s social media activity chills and suppresses free expression,” said Aaron Mackey, EFF senior staff attorney. “People self-censor when they think their speech is being monitored and could be used to target them. A government effort to scour people’s social media accounts is a threat to our civil liberties.”