Last month, the Washington Post reported that employees at the Food and Drug Administration were suing the agency over the privacy of their personal e-mail: “The surveillance — detailed in e-mails and memos unearthed by six of the scientists and doctors […] 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.” (Read selected documents from the lawsuit here.)
Now, the Post reports that the FDA admits it accessed employees’ personal e-mail and Congress is investigating the issue:
The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday that it monitored the personal e-mails of employees who had concerns about unsafe medical devices beginning in April 2010 but said it did so to investigate allegations that the employees had leaked confidential information to the public.
The FDA’s statement came in response to a Washington Post article last month that reported that the FDA intercepted and stored the Gmail communications of a group of agency doctors who raised concerns with Congress about the agency approving cancer-screening and other devices despite the doctors’ determinations that the devices were not safe or effective.
The statement comes as congressional inquiry into the e-mail surveillance has widened. In a letter Thursday to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) warned that the FDA’s monitoring of personal communications between FDA doctors and congressional staff was “unlawful and will not be tolerated.” […]
The FDA has a warning, visible when logging on, that employees 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.
“In this case, the FDA’s purpose was not lawful,” Issa said in his letter. “FDA was not investigating wrongdoing or tracing a security breach. In fact, FDA’s purpose appears to have been unlawful because retaliation against a whistleblower is illegal.” […]
A similar investigation [to Issa’s] has been launched by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose staff communicated with the FDA doctors about their concerns. Grassley wants to know, in particular, if the FDA obtained passwords to the employees’ personal e-mail accounts, allowing their communications on private computers to be intercepted.