FDA staffers sue agency over surveillance of personal e-mail

washingtonpost.com

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The Food and Drug Administration secretly monitored the personal e-mail of a group of its own scientists and doctors after they warned Congress that the agency was approving medical devices that they believed posed unacceptable risks to patients, government documents show.

The surveillance — detailed in e-mails and memos unearthed by six of the scientists and doctors, who filed a lawsuit against the FDA in U.S. District Court in Washington last week — took place over two years as the plaintiffs accessed their personal Gmail accounts from government computers.

Information garnered this way eventually contributed to the harassment or dismissal of all six of the FDA employees, the suit alleges. All had worked in an office responsible for reviewing devices for cancer screening and other purposes.

Copies of the e-mails show that, starting in January 2009, the FDA intercepted communications with congressional staffers and draft versions of whistleblower complaints complete with editing notes in the margins. The agency also took electronic snapshots of the computer desktops of the FDA employees and reviewed documents they saved on the hard drives of their government computers.

FDA computers post a warning, visible when users 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.

But in the suit, the doctors and scientists say the government violated their constitutional privacy rights by gazing into personal e-mail accounts for the purpose of monitoring activity that they say was lawful.

“Who would have thought that they would have the nerve to be monitoring my communications to Congress?” said Robert C. Smith, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, a former radiology professor at Yale and Cornell universities who worked as a device reviewer at the FDA until his contract was not renewed in July 2010. “How dare they?”

An FDA spokeswoman, Erica Jefferson, said the agency does not comment on litigation.

But according to FDA internal documents that the scientists and doctors obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the agency told the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general that they had improperly disclosed confidential business information about the devices. The agency requested that an investigation be opened in May 2010.

The scientists and doctors denied sharing information improperly. The HHS inspector general’s office, which oversees FDA operations, declined to pursue an investigation, finding no evidence of criminal conduct. It also said that the doctors and scientists had a legal right to air their concerns to Congress or journalists.

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