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Who's reading your email?

In this era of being electronic communication, how confidential is confidential? Can you be sure that the email you just sent will be read by the recipient only and not intercepted by various software? Are you aware of the policies that govern your work email ID? Recently, an article in the New York Times revealed that the FDA undertook a surveillance operation on the emails exchanged between its scientists and members of the Congress. Learn more about what happened and what it means for scientists.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a federal agency that oversees new drugs, medical devices, food safety and public health policy. Whether it is a new treatment for HIV or a spinach recall, the FDA makes decisions with regard to public health and safety. Each FDA approved health care device undergoes a stringent review process to ensure its effectiveness and also to document any adverse affects. In the current scenario, the FDA launched an investigation into the communication between five of its scientists and members of the Congress, lawyers and other entities outside the FDA.

According to the NYTimes article, the FDA suspected that these scientists were leaking confidential information about medical devices to people outside the FDA. The underlying dispute, however, seems to be that these scientists had raised issues about the review procedure for certain medical devices over the past few years. It seems that the medical devices in question may have exposed patients to large doses of radiation. It would seem that in response to this dispute, the FDA started monitoring the email communication of these scientists. Many of these scientists have been let go from their FDA position.

So what went wrong? If indeed scientists used FDA email to release or discuss confidential information, then that is most likely a breach of company policy. On the other hand, if the scientists were raising concerns about happenings inside the FDA, then they should be protected from repercussions because they are whistle blowers. This story comes across as a cautionary tale that the fineprint is actually relevant and one should be aware of it. It is important for employees to familiarize themselves with the rules that govern the use of company email.

Many workplaces have regulations about using company email for personal or non-business use. We may never know what really happened within the FDA and why these five scientists were being watched. However, it does remind us to be sure of what the usage policies of email at work are and that if in doubt, it is better not to hit send on that email to your colleague. Even as we are overwhelmed and overpowered by electronic communication, sometimes, walking down the hall to talk to the HR is a better option. 

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