Sunday, July 15, 2012

One Nation Under Surveillance: FDA Spies On Its Own Scientists

Mordor - Total Information Awareness
From the NYT, we learn that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) engaged in a "wide-ranging surveillance operation... against a group of its own scientists", using "an enemies list of sorts as it secretly captured thousands of e-mails" to everyone from Congress to journalists and the president:

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.

A confidential government review in May by the Office of Special Counsel, which deals with the grievances of government workers, found that the scientists’ medical claims were valid enough to warrant a full investigation into what it termed “a substantial and specific danger to public safety.”

It seems very likely that the FDA's actions were worthy of reporting. But nothing could so effectively reinforce the mostly false image of scientists as brilliant in their field of study but naive about political matters as those scientists' allowing their external communications to be spied upon.

A few simple rules of thumb would probably have allowed the scientists to continue undetected and unimpeded: use your own personal equipment to send the emails, not something your employer's IT department supplied to you; don't use your employer's network to transmit the emails; obtain and use your own personal privacy keys to encrypt the email; don't make copies of files onto removable media. Yes, all of that makes whistle-blowing considerably more inconvenient, but if you're going to do it at all, you may want to exercise at least that much common sense and good judgment.

(H/T Mustang Bobby.)

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