The Washington Post reported today on the spy software (sold by SpectorSoft) dozens of federal agencies have purchases to monitor their employees' electronic activities:
Government workers have long known their bosses can look over their shoulder to monitor their computer activity. But now, prompted by the WikiLeaks scandal and concerns over unauthorized disclosures, the government is secretly capturing a far richer, more granular picture of their communications, in real time.
WaPo's report comes on the heels of the Food & Drug Administration's surveillance scandal, which revealed widespread monitoring of employees, whistleblowers' protected communications with Congress and the Office of Special Counsel, congressional staffers, and reporters.
The SpectorSoft software can do more than simply read employees' e-mails. It can:
- Take a screen shot of a computer
- Intercept a tweet or Facebook post
- Monitor keystrokes
- Retrieve hard drive files
SpectorSoft's senior marketing manager elaborated on what federal agencies can do with SpectorSoft's software:
“Think of it as someone stood behind you and put a video camera behind you while you’re working,” Catalini said. “It comes back down to: What does the agency want to record?”
While everyone recognizes actions on government computers can be monitored, this level of invasive surveillance is not expected, and not necessary. Most federal employees spend the better part of their waking day at work, and legitimately use government resources for de minimus personal purposes, some of which carry significant privacy implications. Federal workers might make doctor's appointments or talk with a child's teachers and doctors while at work. While employees know they can be monitored in general, it is not expected that their boss is listening to everything an employees says or reading everything an employee writes.
The WaPo report (from Lisa Rein) commendably included the chilling impact such widespread monitoring has on whistleblowers:
In June, after the TSA issued a solicitation for an “insider-threat software package,” two House Democrats appealed to Administrator John Pistole to scrap the idea, saying whistleblowers would be targeted.
TSA officials denied the software would be used against whistleblowers, but the FDA scandal evidences otherwise.
The surveillance creep leaves whistleblowers in a lose-lose situation.
They can either (1) Remove potentially-sensitive documents from their agency (in order to use their personal computers to blow the whistle) and be subjected to criminal investigation and prosecution under the Espionage Act; or (2) use their government computers to e-mail Congress or the Inspectors General or the Office of Special Counsel, and be "caught" by monitoring software and retaliated against.
Either way, whistleblowers are compromised and discouraged.
Lisa Rein also noted that:
Federal workers’ personal computers are also increasingly seen as fair game, experts said.
She should know, as she also wrote about State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren.The State Department monitored all of Van Buren's online activities, taken on his personal time using his personal computer.
PS: Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño's speech granting Julian Assange asylum should be required listening for anyone interested freedom of speech and of the press. It's available here.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblowerprotection and advocacy organization. This post originally appeared in her Daily Kos column.