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Questions of privacy in employment law arise from FDA monitoring

Federal employees working out of Dallas may need to be concerned that the federal government is monitoring their private email accounts and tracking how they spend their time on the Internet. This concern was sparked by recent reports that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration used spy software to find out everything that some of their employees did on their computers. Some of the information, including employee bank account records and online passwords, apparently leaked onto the web through a private contractor.

Because of this revelation, the issue of privacy in federal employment law is at the forefront of an investigation to determine if the FDA's actions went too far. Lawmakers are also demanding that authorities look into the monitoring practices of other U.S. agencies with ties to the contractor.

Six FDA employees have filed a lawsuit against the agency regarding the private information it gathered and later was made available online. The employees claim the information was misappropriated as part of a whistleblower reprisal after they raised concerns about potentially dangerous medical devices that the agency had approved.

Presently, there are no set guidelines for federal agencies when it comes to monitoring their employees' activities. Agencies are entitled to track how government computers are used, but they often permit employees to use their computers for work-related as well as personal purposes. This means agencies have no clear limits on the extent or degree of monitoring they may legally pursue.

Lawmakers are hoping that the results of the FDA investigation will lead to concrete rules for the government's tracking of employees. But in the meantime, it is probably wise for federal employees to avoid accessing private materials on their work computers.

Source: Federal Times, "When employee monitoring goes too far," Nicole Blake Johnson, Aug. 5, 2012

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