In January, the Washington Post revealed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had been spying on some of its employees' communications after a disagreement about the agency's approval of medical devices that could expose patients to unsafe levels of radiation. Now, over the weekend, the New York Times has reported in even more detail the level of surveillance that was conducted, which has many up in arms.
The Times reports that the scientists' concern over the devices was well-placed, given that a confidential government review a couple months ago called it "a substantial and specific danger to public safety."
The agency began monitoring some employees' communications in the first place to ensure information was not being improperly shared with outside sources. The Times is calling this monitoring an "enemies list of sorts" that included communications to Congress, journalists and even the president. With the extent of the surveillance coming to light, the agency is criticized for the steps they took to track communications, but it stands by its actions saying the information was "collected without regard to the identity of the individuals with whom the user may have been corresponding.”
Here's more from the Times on the situation:
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.
While [the FDA] 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 Times goes on to report members of Congress -- both Republican and Democrat -- as being "irate" over some of their communications with the scientists being involved in the tracking. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), who is referred to as an "ancillary actor" in the situation on the FDA's list, said the agency has “absolutely no business reading the private e-mails of their employees."
"The extent to which the FDA spied on employees' personal email is shocking. The more we learn, the more disturbing it is," Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said according to CBS News. "The FDA's actions raise serious implications for the right of any agency employee to make protected disclosures about waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, or public safety to Congress or anyone else."
Listen to NPR's report with an interview from the New York Times reporter covering the story:
The Times reports the software used by the FDA -- SpectorSoft -- costs about $99.95 for an individual and less than $3,000 for up to 25 computers. It is marketed by the company's website as being able to "Catch them red-handed by receiving instant alerts when keywords or phrases are typed or are contained in an e-mail, chat, instant message or Web site.”
What's more, the Times makes note of the interesting way the extent of the surveillance conducted came to light. The Times states that one of the scientists involved in the investigation stumbled upon the data during a simple Web search:
The posting of the documents was discovered inadvertently by one of the researchers whose e-mails were monitored. The researcher did Google searches for scientists involved in the case to check for negative publicity that might hinder chances of finding work. Within a few minutes, the researcher stumbled upon the database.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said the researcher, who did not want to be identified because of pending job applications. “I thought: ‘Oh my God, everything is out there. It’s all about us.’ It was just outrageous.”
This database has since been removed.
Currently, six scientists -- four of whom were let go and believe they were fired as a result of these communications -- are in a lawsuit with the agency.
Still, Chris Matyszczyk, an adviser for corporations on content creation and marketing, in a post for CNET brings up what many may be thinking at this point: "Should any employee or servant of any organization truly be stunned if their own e-mail is being eyed by those who might not even be entirely mean-spirited, but merely sweetly paranoid?" Matyszczyk acknowledges the "touch of illegality about spying" but ultimately "stuff happens. You just have to anticipate as much stuff as you can."
Read more details about the surveillance in the Times article here.