Newly disclosed records have revealed that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) engaged in a broad surveillance program designed to capture the private emails of their own disgruntled scientists. The program began innocently enough as an effort to prevent classified information from being leaked out of the agency, but eventually resulted in the creation of something of an "enemies list" that was targeted for inappropriate surveillance.
The entire saga began when six FDA scientists took issue with the way the FDA's medical approval bureau approved mammogram and colonoscopy machines that were later revealed to expose patients to dangerous levels of radiation. Claims made by the disapproving scientist were plausible enough that they prompted a government review into the agency's approval process due to "A substantial and specific danger to public safety."
Regardless of the validity of their claims, the FDA decided that these six scientists might expose the trade secrets of the companies who manufactured the dangerous devices in question, information that is considered proprietary and not for public consumption. As a result, they began monitoring not only the email communications of their employees, but also of journalists and members of Congress with whom the employees were sharing their concerns. Eventually, the FDA had a surveillance list that included 21 individuals, among them their own scientists, outside medical researchers, Congressional officials and journalists. They used special spyware sold by SpectorSoft to conduct their surveillance operations.
Ironically, it was their own mishandling of the spy campaign that achieved what they were trying to avoid: the exposure of device manufacturers' trade secrets. A contractor hired by the FDA to manage the data collected from the surveillance posted much of it on a publicly searchable website—whether or not the act was inadvertent is still unclear. What is clear is that, when that happened, the FDA exposed trade secrets as well as other confidential information, like attorney-client communications, and in doing so, may have violated privacy laws.
The surveillance is currently the subject of a lawsuit; of the six scientists being monitored, four were fired from the agency. They claim they were let go because the FDA intercepted emails they sent to members of Congress, reporting on their concerns about the safety of devices being approved by the agency.
Several of the members of Congress included in the surveillance campaign find this last fact particularly troubling. Senator Charles Grassley, whose email correspondences with FDA scientists were included in the spy-op, said of the FDA's actions, "the FDA is discouraging whistleblowers," which is illegal under the federal False Claims Acts. Now it remains to be seen whether any FDA officials will be punished for their role in the operation.