US lawmakers ask if federal workers have email privacy

Grassley and Issa call on the OMB to investigate whether agencies are monitoring personal email accounts

Two Republican lawmakers have asked President Barack Obama's administration to investigate whether agencies are regularly monitoring federal workers' private email accounts after reports of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration firing employees over comments made in personal email messages.

Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, and Representative Darrell Issa, of California, called on the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to survey all U.S. agencies to determine the extent that they are monitoring the personal email messages of employees. The two lawmakers, in a letter sent Monday, also asked OMB to disclose what officials have authorized email monitoring and to investigate if email monitoring has resulted in employees being fired or reprimanded.

Grassley and Issa raised concerns about the monitoring after a lawsuit and news reports alleging that the FDA monitored the Gmail accounts of nine scientists and doctors over a two-year period as the FDA employees raised concerns to Congress and other officials about the safety of some medical devices. The email monitoring of the whistleblowers began in 2009, according to reports in the Washington Post.

Six of the nine, in a lawsuit filed in January, allege that the agency used the contents of their personal email messages to "fire, harass or pass them over for promotion," according to the letter from Grassley and Issa.

Representatives of the OMB and FDA did not immediately respond to messages asking for comments on the letter from Grassley and Issa.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a ruling allowing agencies to monitor their employees' personal email accounts for a "lawful purpose," Grassley and Issa said in their letter.

"In this case, however, the FDA's purpose for conducting the surveillance was not lawful," the two wrote. "The FDA was not legitimately investigating wrongdoing or tracing a security breach."

In February, the two lawmakers asked the independent U.S. Office of Special Counsel to investigate the email monitoring allegations.

In this week's letter, Grassley and Issa ask the OMB to determine if agencies have policies in place for the monitoring of workers' personal email and whether they allow employees to use government computers for personal activities.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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