FDA Accused of Spying on Whistleblowing Employees

Six former and current employees of the Food and Drug Administration say the federal agency spied on their private e-mail correspondence after they attempted to blow the whistle on agency practices of approving medical devices that posed a risk to patients.

The employees, all of them scientists or doctors, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking an injunction to halt the surveillance, according to the Washington Post.

The plaintiffs say the agency spied on correspondence they sent through personal Gmail accounts that they accessed from government computers and took screenshots of their computer desktops after they began corresponding with congressional staffers about their concerns.

Although employee computers displayed a warning at startup that they have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” over any data passing through or stored on the computer, and that the government can intercept data at any time for any lawful government purpose, the employees say the feds violated their constitutional rights by monitoring their personal accounts and that their correspondence with Congress was legally protected.

The plaintiffs were all working for the agency’s Office of Device Evaluation when they voiced concerns to Congress and the media about radiological devices the agency was about to approve, despite evidence that the devices had missed signs of breast cancer during testing. They also expressed concern about an ultrasound device that they said could malfunction while monitoring pregnant women in labor, risking harm to the fetus, and about several devices for colon cancer screening that they feared could give healthy patients cancer because they used excessive doses of radiation.

According to the Post, in the case of at least one device — a digital device for breast cancer screening — a team of experts had recommended against approving the device three times. Yet a senior manager approved it in 2008.

Of the six plaintiffs, two were fired, two did not have their contracts renewed, and two suffered harassment and were passed over for promotions after they began warning Congress and the media about the agency’s approval process.