Ross Marchand: USPS must deliver greater transparency

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Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the Postal Service on Capitol Hill, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Washington.

Transparency and accountability are supposed to be the hallmarks of any democratically elected government. Unfortunately, progress in shining the light on government activities has been disturbingly uneven.

Most Americans are familiar with the controversy over warrantless wiretapping and the uncooperative federal response to requests for greater transparency. But few realize that America’s mail carrier has gone rogue. A recent news report highlights the U.S. Postal Service’s (USPS) continued inability to open up to the American people about their mission creep and operational dysfunction. From blockchain security to social media surveillance to report redactions, the agency simply refuses to explain its activities to taxpayers and consumers. It’s time for Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to introduce some much-needed transparency to agency operations.

On December 13, Washington Post contributors Joseph Marks and Jacob Bogage reported, “[t]he U.S. Postal Service pursued a project to build and secretly test a blockchain-based mobile phone voting system before the 2020 election, experimenting with a technology that the government’s own cybersecurity agency says can’t be trusted to securely handle ballots.” The initiative was shelved by the agency after tests revealed that the voting system was susceptible to hacking. Strangely, though, the USPS never told anyone about this potentially game-changing technology.

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency senior advisor Matt Masterson says he was never told about this initiative despite his critical role as the federal government’s chief liaison to state and local election officials. He reasonably argues, “[i]t’s scandalous for a government entity to conduct research into the security of blockchain online voting, which shows how insecure it is, but then hide the results and deprive the public and officials of these findings for over two years.”

And, this is hardly the first time that the USPS has hid its activities from the public. In April, Yahoo News reported that the agency runs an investigation unit known as the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP), which sounds more like a CIA op than a postal division. According to the news outlet, “[t]he work involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what the document describes as ‘inflammatory’ postings and then sharing that information across government agencies.” As if that isn’t (mission) creepy enough, the agency uses facial recognition software during internet searches “to help identify unknown targets in an investigation or locate additional social media accounts for known individuals.”

Then there’s the agency’s regular refusal to release data, spurning Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that could help independent researchers and analysts pinpoint its many problems. In fiscal year 2019, the agency issued full denials to more than 35% of processed and finalized FOIA requests. This makes the USPS moderately more transparent than the CIA (55%) but considerably more tight-lipped than NASA (11%), the Department of Justice (6%), and the Department of Homeland Security (2%). That’s quite an anomaly, given that the latter three agencies and departments routinely deal with sensitive intelligence that has national security implications.

The USPS could spare itself from a deluge of FOIA requests if it was simply more transparent in its agency oversight reports. Unfortunately, any quick trip to the inspector general’s website reveals the liberal use of black ink to smudge out critical information about agency operations and finances.

Clearly, the USPS has a deep-seated problem in opening up to the public (and other government agencies) about its issues. It certainly is not too late for Postmaster General DeJoy to launch a new transparency initiative that would decrease FOIA denials and fully explain all of its experimental programs. If agency leadership refuses to act, though, Congress may need to get involved and force the USPS’ hand. Americans might reasonably expect (some) secrecy from the government’s national security agencies, but not from America’s mail carrier.

Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.