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Weekend Read: Social Media, USPS Surveillance, and the Capitol Attack

January 7, 2022

Archive Cyber Fellow Cristin Monahan examined government records that highlight the double-edged role the Internet played in the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack and its aftermath in this week’s Cyber Brief: Cyber and the Insurrection, One Year Later. While social media sites like Parler were used to help plan and coordinate the January 6 attack, the public record also makes clear that they allowed civilian sleuths (some called themselves “Sedition Hunters”) to collect and share data to identify riot participants, aiding federal authorities. 

The posting features the declassified January 11, 2021, United States Postal Inspection Service, Situational Awareness Bulletin – Intelligence Summary: United States Capitol Riot Data Archives, which was released thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request by Property of the People. The bulletin details how law enforcement relied on members of the public who archived online material from Parler for intelligence. The USPIS document shows that while Amazon suspended Parler’s web services on January 9, 2021, following an alarming influx in popularity after the insurrection (Cnet reported that the app was downloaded 997,000 times across the Apple App Store and Google Play between January 6th and January 10th – more than ten times the amount leading up to January 6), that by January 10, 2021, a public media server set up by data archive company Intelligence X to capture the Parler posts had caught “over 200 Gigabytes of data and has surpassed 10 Terabytes of download traffic.” Monahan states, “The bulletin’s authors conclude that while Parler itself is inaccessible for the foreseeable future, ‘the efforts fronted by … public contributions of data can assist law enforcement in the analysis and identification of parties involved in the US Capitol Protests.’”

The US Postal Inspection Service learned about the Intelligence X trove from its Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP ) – an obscure arm of the Postal Service that monitors social media posts. As Politico reported on September 27, 2021, two January 11 USPIS bulletins (the second is available here) have increased scrutiny of, and jurisdiction questions concerning, the Postal Service’s involvement in law enforcement and surveillance operations. Chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and ranking member James Comer (R-KY) requested an Inspector General review of iCOP on May 25, 2021, following news reports that the program was monitoring American’s social media for “inflammatory” posts. 

For more weekend reading concerning the investigations made possible by the archived Parler data, see ProPublica’s January 17, 2021, visual investigation, “What Parler Saw During the Capitol Attack.” 

For more on the Postal Service’s surveillance programs, see the New York Times’ August 13, 2015, article, “Copy of Postal Service Audit Shows Extent of Mail Surveillance”. The article highlights a Postal Services Inspector General audit that was released through FOIA and that sheds light on another USPS surveillance program, called mail covers. The audit found that USPS didn’t maintain “sufficient controls” to ensure employees followed protocol for handling the mail covers and inspectors “failed to follow key safeguards in the gathering and handling of classified information.”

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