The Washington Postreported 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
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?”
Adding to the leak hysteria in Washington, the Senate Intelligence Committee advanced legislation purportedly to limit "leaks." WaPo reports:
The legislation, which has yet to be considered by the full Senate or House, would require the White House to notify Congress whenever it plans to share classified information with the public and would curb an increasingly common arrangement in which top national security officials take jobs as commentators on cable-television shows.
What Congress completely neglects to address in their apparent frustration that the White House leaks to the press before leaking to Congress, is that whistleblowers who are sources for Congress end up getting burned and monitored by the Executive branch.
If the Senate Intelligence Committee really wanted to stop media leaks and preserve its oversight abilities, it would enact meaningful whistleblower protections so that employees who bring concerns to Congress are adequately protected from retaliation. Such a measure would certainly give Congress more information than a head's up from the White House that the White House is planning to make public information that will no doubt benefit the administration.
UPDATE: For a full summary of the anti-leak measures in the Intelligence Authorization legislation see Steven Aftergood's analysis. Key quote:
And yet there is something incongruous, if not outrageous, about the whole effort by Congress to induce stricter secrecy in the executive branch, which already has every institutional incentive to restrict public disclosure of intelligence information.
National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake testified before two congressional committees and brought his concerns massive waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality at NSA to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, in accordance with the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. However, that didn't stop the Obama administration from charging him under the Espionage Act and threatening him with spending the rest of his life behind bars. (The case against Drake collapsed under the weight of the truth last summer).
‘Chilling Effect’ Far-Reaching if Congress Fails to Act
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is publicly denouncing the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) implementation of an invasive and potentially illegal surveillance system instituted against employees trying to blow the whistle on critical safety issues surrounding medical devices.
The New York Times revealed the in-depth surveillance program in an explosive piecethis past weekend. That article detailed how the agency monitored and “secretly captured thousands” of email communications between the whistleblowers and members of the media, Congress, attorneys, other regulatory officials, and the White House. Many of these communications are protected by various whistleblower laws. Subsequent reports show that agency lawyers approved these measures.
Amanda Hitt, GAP Public Health Director, and Director of GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign (which aims to protect whistleblowers at the FDA), stated:
“While the outcry by Congress and regulators thus far against the FDA is encouraging, the damage may have already been done. It’s hard to imagine how this fiasco won’t have a chilling effect on future FDA whistleblowers, and employees from all sorts of government agencies.
“This foray into espionage is nothing more than a service the agency provides to its 'clients.' Simply put, the FDA is spying on its own to protect the financial interests of the very corporations it is bound to regulate.”
GAP National Security & Human Rights Director Jesselyn Radack, who monitors the federal government’s use of surveillance, stated:
The Washington Postexpanded on this weekend's blockbuster New York Times articlerevealing the FDA's invasive surveillance on employees, reporters, and congressional staffers in an attempt to target seven scientist-whistleblowers who raised concerns about excessive radiation emitted from mammogram and colonoscopy machines.
This scandal includes an "enemies list," outsourced surveillance, spyware on dogs, and numerous other outrages.
The Washington Post reported that
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that his staff had learned that the spying was “explicitly authorized, in writing” by the agency’s top legal office.
Learning from the now-infamous Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel and my law school classmate John Yoo, who twisted the law to justify torture, the FDA's chief counsel apparently reviewed and authorized the surveillance in a secret memo. The FDA's defense is so lame it is hard to take it with a straight face:
She said that the surveillance was limited in scope . . . The FDA acknowledged Friday that targeted surveillance of five employees began in mid-2010, but it said that was not ongoing today, . . .
The fact that FDA targeted only the whistleblowers, whose communications included legally-protected disclosures to the media, congress, and the Office of Special Counsel, makes the monitoring more problematic, not less.
An FDA spokeswoman assured WaPo that:
“We did not impede or interfere with any employee communication to Congress, their staff, media or federal investigators,” she said.
But, the very act of monitoring IS interfering with the communications. If you know the FDA is monitoring your e-mails you might think twice about revealing to government investigators or Congress or the media that the FDA is disregarding the public health and safety of Americans.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has admitted to monitoring the personal e-mail accounts of whistleblowers communicating with Congress.
TheFood and Drug Administration said Thursday that it monitored the personal e-mails of employees who had concerns about unsafe medical devices beginning in April 2010 . .
While it might be possible to credibly argue that, at work, employees have a diminished expectation of privacy, secret government surveillance of employees' e-mails is a dangerous slippery slope. Invasion of employee privacy was not the only consequence to the monitoring:
The FDA relied on the information it gleaned through secret surveillance to fire, harass or pass over for promotion at least six doctors and scientists who communicated with Congress . . .
The FDA monitored employees who attempted to raise concerns about unsafe medical devices - a danger to health and public safety. Members of Congress were not pleased about the inappropriate surveillance and retaliation:
In a letter Thursday to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) warned that the FDA’s monitoring of personal communications between FDA doctors and congressional staff was “unlawful and will not be tolerated.” . . . FDA’s purpose appears to have been unlawful because retaliation against a whistleblower is illegal.”
A similar investigation has been launched by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose staff communicated with the FDA doctors about their concerns. Grassley wants to know, in particular, if the FDA obtained passwords to the employees’ personal e-mail accounts, allowing their communications on private computers to be intercepted.
President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night didn't include significant mentions of food or agriculture, but what he did bring up regarding the inadequate structure of government agencies, or Regulatory Chaos as we like to call it, has major play in the areas FIC serves.
We live and do business in the information age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black and white TV. There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there’s my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.
The example of how salmon regulation is split up sounds very familiar to those involved in food policy. The inconsistencies between USDA and FDA regulations are quite ridiculous, with spinach and other produce waiting years for an FDA inspection, while meat and poultry plants have USDA visits on a daily basis. And that's just a little glimpse of the seemingly random set-up of our food system maintenance.
Protections Cover Workers in Industries Regulated by FDA; GAP Calls for Similar Rights for Federal Workers to be Passed
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is praising Congress for passing the most comprehensive whistleblower protections for food industry workers in history. A provision in the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed today by the House and expected to be signed by President Obama, provides sweeping protections for corporate employees who report any food violations enforced by the FDA.
"These whistleblower protection provisions are a monumental change in public health protection, and a huge win for food safety," said GAP Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) Director Amanda Hitt. "Whistleblower rights don’t get any stronger than this. Without a doubt, these protections will allow more workers to come forward before outbreaks, which will save lives and enhance food integrity. Lawmakers who made this happen should be commended for standing up for public health."
The protections only extend to corporate workers who report violations of FDA regulations -- not to violations of USDA regulations, which cover the meat and poultry industries. On this point, GAP Legal Director Tom Devine added: “There is no rational excuse to protect corporate workers challenging violations of FDA food safety laws while allowing them to keep getting fired at will for defending USDA food safety laws.”
Our Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) is officially under way. We hope you’ll visit our new FIC website and join our campaign to safeguard food integrity by facilitating truth-telling. In addition to providing litigation services for employees who speak out against safety or health violations, GAP’s Campaign brings their stifled concerns to the public eye as well as provides education outreach and advocacy efforts. The website profiles some of GAP’s prominent food integrity whistleblowers, serves as a hub of information for would-be whistleblowers and those interested in food integrity and whistleblower issues in general. It also provides useful information on what you can do to support food industry whistleblowers.
Along the journey that food takes from field to fork, problems arise every step of the way and we mean to expose them by fueling the voice of the voiceless. FIC believes that food industry whistleblowers are the first line of defense against foodborne illness and outbreaks—the employees that actually work at the food processing facilities, either for the company or as an inspector assigned by the government. Yet they go unheard. If they get up the courage to blow the whistle at a plant they work at, these workers often face retaliation or their complaints are simply ignored. If whistleblowers feel protected (hopefully under the law as well as among the community), it will be more difficult for agribusinesses to maintain their questionable practices as more people step up to push food transparency.
FIC's website spotlights whistleblowers who have spoken out against violations of food integrity acts. Some that have lost their jobs for speaking up were able to publicize their concerns with the help of GAP. Others were protected from termination because of strong evidence GAP helped release to the media.
In addition to exploring food.whistleblower.org to learn more about problems in today's food system and our work with whistleblowers, you can also be part of the cause by following our campaign on Twitter @foodinteg and joining us on Facebook. We need your energy and support to keep this movement moving forward and solidify committed solutions that will enable confident providers and consumers of our nation's food.
Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.
It's becoming a real chore to be a food consumer in America. When outbreaks and recalls are daily news, it’s hard to ignore the source of the problems -- our nation’s giant food producers, and a lack of adequate government regulation. We are left to fend for ourselves in determining what should safely make it to our dinner plate. It's no wonder people are turning to local food retailers, sourceable farmers’ markets, or even becoming vegetarians to institute their own personal ban on industrial agriculture.
Wright County Egg owner Austin DeCoster testified at a House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing on the egg recall yesterday. This was prefaced by a blockbuster New York Times article recapping DeCoster's infamous history with salmonella outbreaks – going back three decades. The point of the article is that a DeCoster-salmonella connection is nothing new. When a problem evolved in one of his facilities, DeCoster simply moved efforts elsewhere. With no federal oversight or guidance, each state had to take its own initiative to protect consumers, but their actions – like the FDA visiting DeCoster’s Iowa farms after the August recall – were reactive rather than proactive. In 1988, New York banned DeCoster from selling eggs in the state after three salmonella outbreaks tied to his operations occurred. Maryland quarantined his eggs in 1991. Food embargoes appear to be the only answer.
At the international level, countries are concerned about accepting U.S. food products. Some of these actions may be related to protectionism—but concerns over the safety of American food have been repeatedly raised. After this year’s egg recall, the Obama administration had to reassure Russian officials that their U.S. chicken imports were safe and unaffected by the outbreak, emphasizing that poultry meat and eggs are produced in separate facilities. These concerns came in the wake of Russia lifting a seven-month ban on U.S. poultry imports that had been in effect over concern about the use of chlorine in processing chicken meat. Coincidentally, as that ban ended, Russian officials announced a new ban on imports from two Smithfield pork plants due to finding excessive amounts of antibiotics. If it’s not one problem, it’s another. American livestock producers put antibiotics in their animals’ daily feed to speed up growth and prevent disease – often helped by large numbers of animals in small, crowded spaces. A NYT editorial highlights new recommendations to delay the use of antibiotics until cases of illness and emergency, but it’s doubtful that agribusiness will listen. It’s easier for them to care about profits over public health.
The idea of having genetically modified (GM) fish on the consumer market – the first would-be “transgenic” animal sold in the country – was explored from all sides at the FDA’s public hearing Monday. AquaBounty, the company seeking FDA permission to sell the ”frankenfish,” asserted that its product is identical to Atlantic salmon, except for the speed of its growth. The fish would be raised in physically contained tanks and would be sterile females, reducing the likelihood that they could, respectively, escape and reproduce. Critics countered that the company has not proved that the fish is safe for human consumption, or the environment – and need to consider the impact of possible escape.
The most recent episode of GAP TV – Whistle Where You Work – explored concerns regarding the impact of GM salmon. Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch discussed the problems with conventional salmon farming, and the added complications GM fish might cause. She also pointed out that inland farming is very difficult, and those who have tried in the past have used fish much smaller than salmon, which need a lot of room. Eric Hoffman, the genetic technology policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, mapped out how the GM fish are produced and the fact that FDA is using AquaBounty’s own research. That’s right - no one is actually able to look at its process because it is propriety information.
Whistle Where You Work airs nationally on the Free Speech TV channel on the Dish Satellite Network, on over 70 community access stations around the country, and in parts of Europe. The show features panel discussions with nonprofit/media experts on topics related to whistleblowing, civil liberties, or general public interest issues. Click here to visit the show’s webpage.
Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.