FDA Spied on Emails of Its Own Scientists

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In Vast Effort, F.D.A. Spied on E-Mails of Its Own Scientists

By ERIC LICHTBLAU and SCOTT SHANE
Published: July 14, 2012 183 Comments

WASHINGTON — A wide-ranging surveillance operation by the Food and Drug Administration against a group of its own scientists used an enemies list of sorts as it secretly captured thousands of e-mails that the disgruntled scientists sent privately to members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, journalists and even President Obama, previously undisclosed records show.
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A list names three of the 21 people said to be collaborating in criticism of the F.D.A., including employees and outside contacts.

A memo reports that monitoring software had been placed on the laptop of an agency medical officer.

What began as a narrow investigation into the possible leaking of confidential agency information by five scientists quickly grew in mid-2010 into a much broader campaign to counter outside critics of the agency’s medical review process, according to the cache of more than 80,000 pages of computer documents generated by the surveillance effort.

Moving to quell what one memorandum called the “collaboration” of the F.D.A.’s opponents, the surveillance operation identified 21 agency employees, Congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists thought to be working together to put out negative and “defamatory” information about the agency.

F.D.A. officials defended the surveillance operation, saying that the computer monitoring was limited to the five scientists suspected of leaking confidential information about the safety and design of medical devices.

While they acknowledged that the surveillance tracked the communications that the scientists had with Congressional officials, journalists and others, they said it was never intended to impede those communications, but only to determine whether information was being improperly shared.

The agency, using so-called spy software designed to help employers monitor workers, captured screen images from the government laptops of the five scientists as they were being used at work or at home. The software tracked their keystrokes, intercepted their personal e-mails, copied the documents on their personal thumb drives and even followed their messages line by line as they were being drafted, the documents show.

The extraordinary surveillance effort grew out of a bitter dispute lasting years between the scientists and their bosses at the F.D.A. over the scientists’ claims that faulty review procedures at the agency had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.

A confidential government review in May by the Office of Special Counsel, which deals with the grievances of government workers, found that the scientists’ medical claims were valid enough to warrant a full investigation into what it termed “a substantial and specific danger to public safety.”

The documents captured in the surveillance effort — including confidential letters to at least a half-dozen Congressional offices and oversight committees, drafts of legal filings and grievances, and personal e-mails — were posted on a public Web site, apparently by mistake, by a private document-handling contractor that works for the F.D.A. The New York Times reviewed the records and their day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour accounting of the scientists’ communications.

With the documents from the surveillance cataloged in 66 huge directories, many Congressional staff members regarded as sympathetic to the scientists each got their own files containing all their e-mails to or from the whistle-blowers. Drafts and final copies of letters the scientists sent to Mr. Obama about their safety concerns were also included.

Last year, the scientists found that a few dozen of their e-mails had been intercepted by the agency. They filed a lawsuit over the issue in September, after four of the scientists had been let go, and The Washington Post first disclosed the monitoring in January. But the wide scope of the F.D.A. surveillance operation, its broad range of targets across Washington, and the huge volume of computer information that it generated were not previously known, even to some of the targets.

F.D.A. officials said that in monitoring the communication of the five scientists, their e-mails “were collected without regard to the identity of the individuals with whom the user may have been corresponding.” While the F.D.A. memo described the Congressional officials and other “actors” as collaborating in the scientists’ effort to attract negative publicity, the F.D.A. said that those outside the agency were never targets of the surveillance operation, but were suspected of receiving confidential information.
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NuttyJim

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Feb 18, 2006
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#2
Rule #1 : never send disgruntled emails from work computer or work email addresses.
 

Norm Stansfield

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#3
Rule #1 : never send disgruntled emails from work computer or work email addresses.
Where exactly are you supposed to contact the President from? Your google account? You really think it will reach him?
 

NuttyJim

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Feb 18, 2006
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#4
Where exactly are you supposed to contact the President from? Your google account? You really think it will reach him?
Exactly because he is really sitting up at night checking his white house email account in between surfing wackbag.
 

whiskeyguy

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I'm with NuttyJim, never ever use employer-owned equipment (computers, networks, etc) to send anything you don't want them to see, personal or otherwise. They have every right to monitor equipment they own.

Not defending the F.D.A. if they were actually covering something up... especially if they were hiding it from the federal government who is suppose to oversee them. If that's the case, the scientists were in the right (at least partially) in making the issue known. You just can't expect any level of privacy when using technology you don't own.
 

gleet

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Jul 24, 2005
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When they give you a guvmint computer, they fucking tell you that every keystroke can be recorded or seen later. I guess somebody wasn't listening at the training session.
 

MayrMeninoCrash

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#7
Not just the Government but must publicly owned companies have to record and archive their emails for a certain period of time as part of their legal obligations as a public corporation.
 

whiskeyguy

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Not just the Government but must publicly owned companies have to record and archive their emails for a certain period of time as part of their legal obligations as a public corporation.
Good ol' Sarbanes-Oxely... yeah if you work for a public corporation you will be monitored and that shit will come back to bite you in the ass if you're doing shit you shouldn't. I'm pretty sure Sarbanes actually requires that all company business be done using company email/phones/etc.
 

Norm Stansfield

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#11
Yes, government computers are indeed monitored. But I don't think communication with Congress and the White House is supposed to be monitored by bureaucrats trying to cover their asses. I'm pretty sure that's not something they tell you when they give you a government e-mail or computer.
 

whiskeyguy

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#13
Yes, government computers are indeed monitored. But I don't think communication with Congress and the White House is supposed to be monitored by bureaucrats trying to cover their asses. I'm pretty sure that's not something they tell you when they give you a government e-mail or computer.
I don't think anyone is defending the actions of the F.D.A. if they were trying to cover their ass, if these scientists were whistle-blowers, they should be protected regardless of where the communication came from. You also just have to be aware of the medium you're using.
 

gleet

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Jul 24, 2005
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#14
Yes, government computers are indeed monitored. But I don't think communication with Congress and the White House is supposed to be monitored by bureaucrats trying to cover their asses. I'm pretty sure that's not something they tell you when they give you a government e-mail or computer.
They tell you that every key stroke can and will be seen. Simple as that.

If you want to write congress or the prez or Santa, you can use your personal computer after work. It's not a big problem.
 

NuttyJim

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Feb 18, 2006
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#15
Yes, government computers are indeed monitored. But I don't think communication with Congress and the White House is supposed to be monitored by bureaucrats trying to cover their asses. I'm pretty sure that's not something they tell you when they give you a government e-mail or computer.
everything going in and out or loaded onto that computer is open to inspection at any time. By you using that system you acknowledge the monitoring of your computer and emails at any time.
 

Buster H

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#16
I'm with the majority of the posters here. You have to expect that every single keystroke on a work computer and every email sent through work servers can be monitored and is perfectly legal.

If theses guys were bringing legit concerns to congress, it's up to them to come down hard on the assholes. Even with that, you still have to expect that your communications are subject to monitoring.
 

whiskeyguy

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#17
I'm with the majority of the posters here. You have to expect that every single keystroke on a work computer and every email sent through work servers can be monitored and is perfectly legal.

If theses guys were bringing legit concerns to congress, it's up to them to come down hard on the assholes. Even with that, you still have to expect that your communications are subject to monitoring.
Exactly. By all means use regular communication channels, but expect the organization to know what you're up to. If you're in the right, hopefully you'll see the proper outcome, at which point it won't matter if the organization was monitoring you.