FDA staffers sue agency over email surveillance

January 30, 2012 by MassDevice staff

FDA whistleblowers sue the agency over its secret surveillance of their private email accounts, alleging the watchdog agency violated their rights to free speech and unreasonable search and seizure.


Six of the so-called "FDA 9" whistleblowers are suing the federal watchdog agency, alleging that the government violated their constitutional rights with surveillance of their private email accounts.

The staffers allege that the FDA spied on the private email accounts they accessed using their government-issued computers, after they warned Congress and the president that unsafe medical devices were being allowed onto the U.S. market.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, levels 12 counts against the agency, its chief Dr. Margaret Hamburg, medical device chief Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, the Dept. of Health & Human Services and its head, Kathleen Sebelius, and other government officials. It accuses them of enacting the secret surveillance after learning of a letter the staffers sent to then-President-elect Barack Obama's transition team Jan. 7, 2009, and of using the information gleaned from the tapped email accounts to harass and, in some cases, fire the whistleblowers.

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After learning of the letter, the FDA set up a secret file on its database labelled "FDA 9" to collect the surveillance data. The agency took screenshots of the staffers' computers as they accessed their private Gmail accounts, according to the lawsuit. Although the government has the right to surveil any activity on the computers it issues, it's unclear whether it's legal to secretly gain access to private email accounts used on government-issued devices.