Stop Workplace Negativity With Email Surveillance. . . . Huh?

FDA officials developed “a wide-ranging surveillance operation” against a group of its own employees, according to the N.Y. Times. The federal agency is said to have surreptitiously captured “thousands of emails” that disgruntled employee-scientists sent to members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, and journalists.

The surveillance began as a workplace investigation of a possible leak of confidential information. The investigation was limited to five scientists. But it developed into a far broader-ranging endeavor, eventually culminating in 80,000 pages of documents. The massive surveillance was an effort to curb the “collaboration” of the agency’s opponents, according to the report.

This story is interesting on several levels. First, on the most basic level, the idea that an employer the size of the FDA determined that a massive surveillance endeavor was the best way to stop what it perceived to be disparaging or antagonist commentary between employees and outsiders. I don’t know what the culture has to be or what the level of negative murmurs has to be to prompt an employer to consider this type of effort in the first instance, nevertheless what it takes to push it to cross that line.

Second, the nature of the communications that were monitored is particularly striking. According to the NY Times report, the emails “were collated without regard to the identify of the individuals with whom the user may have been corresponding. Although the law is not particularly well settled on this issue, there are cases that have upheld significant consequences for employers who monitor, intercept, and/or access emails between an employee and his attorney. Thus, it seems potentially risky for the agency to have disregarded “the individuals with whom the user may have been corresponding.”

There are potential consequences beyond the issue of attorney-client privilege, though. We’ll have to wait to see what the legal consequences are, if any. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what the real impact is on morale, although I can imagine only that it won’t be a very positive one.