“It is simply not credible that FDA went to such great lengths over the course of two years to monitor employees’ personal e-mail accounts, then spent six months crafting a reply to my questions about it, and yet still cannot identify who authorized the spying,” he said.
FDA computers post a warning to users, visible when they log on, that they should have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” in any data passing through or stored on the system, and that the government may intercept any such data at any time for any lawful government purpose.
Internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the scientists, some of whom have been fired, show that the FDA was concerned that they had improperly disclosed confidential business information about several medical devices used to screen patients for colon cancer and breast cancer.
According to documents, the agency used software sold by SpectorSoft of Vero Beach, Fla., which is marketed to employers as a way to monitor “everything [employees] do,” including taking snapshot videos of the user’s computer screen, and sending instant alerts based on specific keywords, program activity and printing. SpectorSoft says that it can create reports on how users are communicating with one another, who is leaking confidential information or trade secrets, and who is transferring data to removable media such as USB drives.
The scientists who were targeted in the FDA’s effort have filed suit against the agency for violating their privacy and right to free speech.
“Given the public health and safety nature of the concerns raised by these doctors and scientists, any authorization by the chief counsel would be startling, disturbing and should result in a swift investigation,” said Stephen M. Kohn, an attorney for the scientists.
The extent of similar surveillance by other government agencies is unclear.
The Federal Maritime Commission, an independent agency that regulates international ocean transportation for U.S. exporters and importers, is under investigation by a House committee for spying on the personal e-mail communications of several employees with grievances against the commission’s management.
The commission apparently also used SpectorSoft software, said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who opened an investigation of the agency in May.