A privacy organization has filed a lawsuit against the United States Postal Service demanding details of the service’s program that spies on Americans and their social media posts.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has announced the Freedom of Information Act filing seeking information about its “covert program to secretly comb through online posts of social media users before street protests.”
“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.”
It is under a program called Internet Covert Operations Program that analysts at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Postal Service’s law enforcement arm, searched data created by social media users to surveil what they were saying and sharing.
Media reports confirmed posts on Facebook, Twitter, Parler, and Telegraph were likely swept up in the surveillance program.
The EFF explained, “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.”
Published reports have shown that a government bulletin dated last March was sent across DHS’s state-run security threat centers to tell law enforcement agencies that USPIS was monitoring “significant activity regarding planned protests occurring internationally and domestically…”
“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.”
The complaint in federal court in Washington, D.C., stated, “Social media monitoring has serious consequences for all internet users’ civil liberties. Social media monitoring chills and suppresses speech online: when users know they are being monitored, they frequently self-censor out of fear that any and all online speech can be used to discipline, control, or harm them. Social media monitoring also enables officials to misuse people’s social media activity as a potential source of leverage and control.”
It continued, “This surveillance exercises control regardless of whether speech is unprotected and regardless of online speech’s political, cultural, sexual, and personal value.”
The case was filled after the service declined to answer questions about the problem, and seeks the release of records pertaining to the “Internet Covert Operations Program.”