Constitutional Law

6 Staff Docs and Scientists Sue FDA Over Secret Gov't Surveillance of Personal Gmail Accounts

Six doctors and scientists have sued the Food and Drug Administration after discovering that the agency snooped into their personal Gmail accounts, which the staffers accessed from their government computers.

Government documents show that the secret surveillance took place, over a two-year period starting in January 2009, after the staffers complained to lawmakers in Congress that the FDA was approving risky medical devices, the Washington Post (reg. req.) reports.

All six of the plaintiffs say in the Washington, D.C., federal suit that they suffered adverse consequences at work over the material the FDA gleaned in this manner from their Gmail accounts. Materials found in this manner included communications to lawmakers about the staffers’ concerns and whistle-blower complaints with editing notes in the margins, the newspaper says.

The FDA did not comment for the article. However, it appears that the agency justified the surveillance on at least two grounds:

• First, that the staffers may have revealed proprietary information outside the agency, although a subsequent Department of Health and Human Services inspector general probe found no grounds to pursue a complaint on that basis.

• And second, that by signing onto a government computer that contained warning notice that the government might snoop in this manner, the plaintiffs waived any reasonable expectation of privacy they might otherwise have had.

Nonetheless, at least one of the plaintiffs was outraged:

“Who would have thought that they would have the nerve to be monitoring my communications to Congress? How dare they?” said Robert C. Smith, a former radiology professor at Cornell and Yale universities. Smith left his FDA device reviewer job when his contract wasn’t renewed in July 2010.

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