The US Food and Drug Administration routinely monitored the personal e-mail of certain FDA scientists and doctors after they warned Congress the agency was approving risky medical devices.
According to the Washington Post, the clandestine surveillance took place over a period of two years as FDA officials monitored personal Gmail accounts accessed on government computers. The agency also took electronic snapshots of computer desktops and reviewed documents saved on local hard drives.
The gleaned data allegedly prompted the harassment or dismissal of 6 FDA employees - all of whom were tasked with reviewing devices for cancer screening and other purposes.
Unsurprisingly, the former employees are now suing the FDA within the context of a suit that accuses the agency of violating constitutional privacy rights.
Although the FDA refused to comment on ongoing litigation, it should be noted that agency computers prominently post a warning against the expectation of any "reasonable" form of privacy while using government systems.
In addition, FDA internal documents claim the scientists and doctors "improperly disclosed" confidential business information about the device - a charge the plaintiffs vehemently deny.
Nevertheless, the FDA apparently attempted to initiate two separate investigations in 2010, stating: "We have obtained new information confirming the existence of information disclosures that undermine the integrity and mission of the FDA and, we believe, may be prohibited by law." Both requests were ultimately denied by the Inspector General.
As expected, the FDA surveillance case has caught the attention of several politicians, including Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
"The FDA has a huge responsibility to protect public health and safety," Grassley said in a recent statement.
"It's hard to see how managers apparently thought it was a good use of time to shadow agency scientists and monitor their e-mail accounts for legally protected communications with Congress."