In its rigorous search for food & drug safety, the FDA added searching through the personal emails of agency employees who questioned FDA decisions.

That would be an oops – for both sides of that story.

fda titanic
(c) PBS | Frontline

Here’s the lowdown: on Sunday (Jan. 29, 2012) the Washington Post reported that the FDA was being sued by staffers – scientists and doctors charged with testing medical devices – for harassment and wrongful dismissal as a result of the agency’s surveillance of their personal email accounts. That email surveillance revealed that the FDA staffers were contacting Congressional staff with whistle-blower complaints about FDA approval of devices that the scientists and docs thought were a risk to patients.

Hue and cry! Bad FDA!

Actually, I agree that the snoopy surveilling of personal email accounts is creepy, even wrong.

However, here’s the rub: the FDA staffers were accessing their personal email using computers at work. At the FDA. Within the Federal government IT infrastructure. You know, the people that oversee other stuff like Echelon. And the Pentagon. Gee, FDA guys plotting whistle-blower campaigns on work computers – stupid much?

On the FDA side of the story, we have creepy fascist tactics deployed by an agency that should be all about making sure that no pharmaceutical, no medical device, no food product makes anyone sick. Or worse, dead.

The record there? Not so stellar. Can you say Vioxx?

On the outraged-former-employee side of the story, we have some folks who thought they were veryvery smart (scientists and MDs always think that, trust me), but who played veryvery stupid on the interwebz.

Accessing personal email on a computer that belongs to your employer is pretty dumb if you’re doing or saying anything that casts a shadow on the hand that feeds you. Yes, that means you become the bad dog, and that’s not a great role to play. Because “no-no-bad-dog!” translates to “your ass is fired” in this scenario.

Even if you’re on your own computer, and you’re using your employer’s network or VPN, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

It boils down to this: just like anything else on the web, don’t put anything on it/through it unless you’re willing to either have it on page 1, above the fold, of the WaPo or the New York Times. Or your boss’s desktop.

The saddest part of this story is that the FDA really does need a total tear-down. It’s become too obstructionist to what could really improve public health, and too easy-peasy for big-money players who want to make the system work for Citizen Corporate, not Mr./Ms. Every-patient.

This lawsuit could become quite the precedent-setter, if it gets past the lower courts with its plaintiffs intact.

Stay tuned for further developments. I sure will.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it …

FDA paranoia – who knew?
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