In an effort to protect its public image, the Food and Drug Administration secretly intercepted thousands of emails sent from disgruntled scientists working at the agency to members of Congress, journalists, labor officials and the White House.
The scientists were attempting to blow the whistle on the FDA’s approval of medical devices that they said posed a threat to the public.
The agency defended itself by saying that the program was intended only to monitor rather than to interrupt the scientists’ communications. The 80,000 pages of documents were posted—apparently by mistake—on a public website by a contractor that handles the FDA’s private documents.
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.
… While federal agencies have broad discretion to monitor their employees’ computer use, the F.D.A. program may have crossed legal lines by grabbing and analyzing confidential information that is specifically protected under the law, including attorney-client communications, whistle-blower complaints to Congress and workplace grievances filed with the government.