What can the F.D.A. teach us about Officials, Internet voting, and Computer voting?

A sickening (no pun intended) piece in the New York Times about the Food and Drug Administration: In Vast Effort, F.D.A. Spied on E-Mails of Its Own Scientists <read>

Summary: F.D.A. put off the shelf spy software on work and home computers of employees suspected of whistle-blowing. The software captured emails, keystrokes, chats, and screens of the employees, sending alerts based on specific words. Also thus spying on journalists and congressional staff which may have been ‘conspiring’ to hold the F.D.A. to account.

A wide-ranging surveillance operation by the Food and Drug Administration against a group of its own scientists used an enemies list of sorts as it secretly captured thousands of e-mails that the disgruntled scientists sent privately to members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, journalists and even President Obama, previously undisclosed records show.

What began as a narrow investigation into the possible leaking of confidential agency information by five scientists quickly grew in mid-2010 into a much broader campaign to counter outside critics of the agency?s medical review process, according to the cache of more than 80,000 pages of computer documents generated by the surveillance effort.

Moving to quell what one memorandum called the “collaboration” of the F.D.A.?s opponents, the surveillance operation identified 21 agency employees, Congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists thought to be working together to put out negative and “defamatory” information about the agency.

F.D.A. officials defended the surveillance operation, saying that the computer monitoring was limited to the five scientists suspected of leaking confidential information about the safety and design of medical devices.

While they acknowledged that the surveillance tracked the communications that the scientists had with Congressional officials, journalists and others, they said it was never intended to impede those communications, but only to determine whether information was being improperly shared.

The agency, using so-called spy software designed to help employers monitor workers, captured screen images from the government laptops of the five scientists as they were being used at work or at home. The software tracked their keystrokes, intercepted their personal e-mails, copied the documents on their personal thumb drives and even followed their messages line by line as they were being drafted, the documents show.

The extraordinary surveillance effort grew out of a bitter dispute lasting years between the scientists and their bosses at the F.D.A. over the scientists? claims that faulty review procedures at the agency had led to the approval of medical imaging devices for mammograms and colonoscopies that exposed patients to dangerous levels of radiation…

With the documents from the surveillance cataloged in 66 huge directories, many Congressional staff members regarded as sympathetic to the scientists each got their own files containing all their e-mails to or from the whistle-blowers. Drafts and final copies of letters the scientists sent to Mr. Obama about their safety concerns were also included.

Last year, the scientists found that a few dozen of their e-mails had been intercepted by the agency. They filed a lawsuit over the issue in September, after four of the scientists had been let go…

Mr. Van Hollen said on Friday after learning of his status on the list that “it is absolutely unacceptable for the F.D.A. to be spying on employees who reach out to members of Congress to expose abuses or wrongdoing in government agencies.”

Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican whose former staff member?s e-mails were cataloged in the surveillance database, said that “the F.D.A. is discouraging whistle-blowers.” He added that agency officials “have absolutely no business reading the private e-mails of their employees. They think they can be the Gestapo and do anything they want.”…

The software used to track the F.D.A. scientists, sold by SpectorSoft of Vero Beach, Fla., costs as little as $99.95 for individual use, or $2,875 to place the program on 25 computers. It is marketed mainly to employers to monitor their workers and to parents to keep tabs on their children?s computer activities.

“Monitor everything they do,” says SpectorSoft?s Web site. “Catch them red-handed by receiving instant alerts when keywords or phrases are typed or are contained in an mail, chat, instant message or Web site.”…

What can we learn:

  • Any form of Internet voting is completely vulnerable to the loss of the secret ballot, including email voting. Military commanders could monitor voting by soldiers, business owners monitor employee voting, union leaders monitor members voting, bishops monitor voting of the flock and employees of their enterprises etc.
  • Similarly,  votes made on software used to complete ballots for mail-in voting could be monitored.
  • Technicians know that it is hardly a leap to go from monitoring screens and keystrokes to being able to change votes undetected by the user.
  • All it takes is access and commercial software sold to the general public, no technical expertise.
  • Officials and public agencies are not exempt for ethics lapses and the ability to do practically anything. It is “parents ‘play'”. (Voting officials included)
  • The possibilities are endless. Spouses, dates, officials, candidates, campaigns, votes, voters, and auditors can be monitored by practically anyone.

What remains to be seen:

  • Will the perpetrators be brought to justice? Could they have information that they could use as a bribe to stop investigations and prosecutions? Will prosecutions be stopped for “national security” reasons? More on this topic coming soon…

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Democracy Now covers this same story <video>

There are really three aspects of the story:

  1. Ignoring science, the F.D.A. approved dangerous medical equipment in diametric opposition to its mission
  2. The F.D.A. targeted and fired whistle-blowers trying to prevent this
  3. They spied on employees, protected communication, and Congress, creating an enemies list
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