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FDA Publicly Posts Trade Secrets It Was Hiding

July 16, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging, Gastrointestinal Imaging, Medical Ethics
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The Food and Drug Administration secretly monitored the computers and e-mails of five of its scientists, saying it feared they were disclosing trade secrets and other confidential information about medical devices.

Now, apparently as a result of an error by a private document-handling contractor that works for the FDA, more than 80,000 documents captured by the surveillance have been posted on a public Web site—including, according to The New York Times, “hundreds of confidential documents on the design of imaging devices and other detailed, proprietary information.”

One of the researchers whose e-mails were monitored stumbled across the posting via Google. The five scientists had accused their FDA bosses of approving medical imaging devices for mammograms and virtual colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation.

The posting—which included e-mails to as well as from the five targeted scientists—disappeared on Friday after the Times began asking the agency about it.

Six scientists sued the agency over the monitoring last September, and the Washington Post first disclosed the monitoring in January. We reported on the lawsuit in February.

The FDA may deeply regret the posting—and perhaps the whole surveillance program—because it has annoyed both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. E-mails from a former staffer for U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, showed up among the documents. Grassley said agency officials “have absolutely no business reading the private e-mails of their employees” and added:

They think they can be the Gestapo and do anything they want.

The FDA has defended the surveillance, saying the agency was merely investigating what it feared was the leaking of confidential information. The Times reports that the investigation may have begun that way in 2010 but quickly expanded into a broader campaign to combat critics inside and outside the FDA who, agency managers thought, were collaborating to spread negative information about the agency.

The agency made a list of 21 employees, congressional officials, outside workers, journalists, and others who it thought were part of the conspiracy. Number 14 was U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat.

Van Hollen said on Friday that “it is absolutely unacceptable for the FDA to be spying on employees who reach out to members of Congress to expose abuses or wrongdoing in government agencies.”

Spy software on the government-issued laptops of the five targeted scientists captured screen images, keystrokes, personal e-mails, and even documents on personal flash drives. The Times said the surveillance may have illegally scooped up certain protected information, “including attorney-client communications, whistle-blower complaints to Congress, and workplace grievances filed with the government.”

We can’t help but notice that for smart people, the scientists were pretty naive. If you’re trying to blow the whistle on your employer and want to keep it a secret, don’t use your employer’s computer.

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Remember the Hawaii radiologists who last month protested losing their contract to RadCare of Dallas? A court ruling has left them unhappy. See why on our Facebook page.

Related seminar: Computed Body Tomography: The Cutting Edge

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One Response to “FDA Publicly Posts Trade Secrets It Was Hiding”

  1. Radiology Daily»AlertArchive » Radiologist In FDA Lawsuit Has Sued Before on July 23rd, 2012 at 10:03 am

    […] Robert C. Smith, MD, JD, was among six scientists who sued the FDA last September over the monitoring. The extent of the surveillance became evident with the accidental release of more than 80,000 documents captured by the program. The New York Times recently revealed the mistaken Internet posting, as we said last week. […]