The FDA Wants To Dig Through Everyone's Stuff In Order To 'Monitor Online Sentiment'

from the a-tough-sell-in-the-current-anti-surveillance-climate dept

The FDA would like to know what you’re thinking. It doesn’t want to read minds and it couldn’t care less about your lesser, non-FDA-related thoughts. That stuff’s for other agencies with even creepier intentions and more nefarious toolsets. No, the FDA wants to know what you, the public, think about the FDA. And by “think,” it means post stuff on the internet. And by “stuff,” it means damn near everything.

Regulatory Focus (via the Pharma Marketing Blog) reports that the FDA is seeking bids from contractors in order to provide the agency with assistance in “monitoring online sentiment.”

It is similar in many respects to an earlier contract awarded to help the agency monitor social media traffic. That contract was subject to a considerable amount of scrutiny by some legislators, including Republican Tom Coburn (R-OK), who included the project in his influential yearly “Wastebook” (#87) of allegedly superfluous taxpayer-funded projects.

“Being liked is important, but maybe federal agencies should take some time away from figuring out what people think about them and spend more time just doing their job,” Coburn’s report quipped.

This new push for an online sentiment tracker does seem more than a little needy and/or narcissistic. Sure, even federal agencies need to do a little PR work from time to time, but the regulatory agency’s focus should be regulating, not scanning the web for “influencers” in order to slightly better target its talking points and drug interaction updates.

This would just seem like a bit of the old “B.M.F. (US Gov. Remix)” if the FDA wasn’t looking to cast an FDA-centric dragnet across the internet in order to achieve its goal of… well… being liked? Here’s a truncated list of everywhere and everything the FDA wants to “monitor” for “sentiment.”

Must draw from multiple social media channels, including (but not limited to): blogs, forums, Twitter, social networking, etc.

Must draw from mainstream media sources

Must draw from photos, audio and video sources

Must draw from open source data sets, including, e-commerce sites Amazon,, etc.),

Must draw from proprietary data sets

Must allow for network, nodal analyses of communications channels, influencers, propagators, etc.

The contractor providing this glorious bounty of harvested data and content is given the option of doing the work onsite at the FDA or on its own premises and must be able to create a robust program that is easy, accessible, powerful and deeply technical. Said contractor must also be able to discern the meaning of the following word salad without mocking the agency or consulting a third-party interpreter.

Gain access to the message impact to the geographic area, determine influencers and create analytics to better target the outreach of public health messages to various audiences

Oh, and presumably the software needs to come in under budget, or at least not so far over it that Sen. Coburn adds FDA Online Sentiment Monitor And Message Impacter (v. 1.3b) to the 2015 edition of Wastebook.

So, as Coburn sort of asked, why should the FDA care what the public is thinking (or at least spreading all over the internet), or why should it care so much that it’s willing to task a contractor with sifting through nearly everything that can be publicly posted in order to make small adjustments to its PR efforts? Is it really worthwhile to chase down something this nebulous? The FDA obviously believes it is. This is its second attempt to turn social media into a set of massageable numbers.

But what about privacy concerns? Nothing in the bid document mentions anything about that. Of course, the government assumes that if people are willing to post things publicly then they’re willing to share it with federal agencies as well. There’s no expectation of privacy to prevent a private contractor from rooting through videos, photos, blog posts, podcasts and other shared content in hopes of quantifying online feels vis-a-vis the FDA.

But a smart agency would take into consideration the potential impact of its data/content trawling, first and foremost in terms of public image, because that area — the same one it’s trying to improve — is the one that will take the most damage when people witness yet another agency rooting around in their stuff. (Yes, they share stuff and they still consider it “theirs.” It’s weird but that’s how humans feel about personal content, even if shared publicly.) Just because you can do it with no legal repercussions doesn’t mean you should do it, especially in pursuit of vagaries like “online sentiment.”

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Comments on “The FDA Wants To Dig Through Everyone's Stuff In Order To 'Monitor Online Sentiment'”

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Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t know, it doesn’t bother me on a ‘privacy’ level, since I don’t think there would be any coercive of extralegal aspects to the data gathering. It does bother me from the perspective of ‘what a stupid waste of money’, ‘projects scoped like this and handed to contractors never end on time or below budget’, ‘this will never give any meaningful information’, and a few others…

PRMan (profile) says:

I think the FDA is completely bought

It’s a revolving door of approving controversial things (like those of their best buddy Monsanto for Nutrasweet and RoundUp for instance) and then the director of the FDA getting a cushy lifetime job at said corporation.

Also, they don’t really care 2 beans about public safety, preferring instead the budget safety of big pharma.

They’re probably THE most corrupt branch of the federal government, and that’s saying a lot.

How’s that?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I think the FDA is completely bought

Yes, Monsanto, thats good.. and the aspartame and pickling the population with that. Round up and the vegetables that are completely devoid of nutrients. Thanks for mentioning that. Lets not forget the Fluoridation SCAM around the world that is killing the population slowly with that poison the governments seem to enjoy paying billions for.

out_of_the_blue says:

And YET you're not worried about Google. Astounding disconnect.

Oh, right, the Techdirt notion is: Google is okay because only a mega–corporation greedy for untaxed profits by stealing every shed of your privacy.

When you think surveillance or spying or snooping or censoring or pushing propaganda, think Google!

Google wants you to know you’re under our ever improving state-of-the-art personalized surveillance! We learn your interests, habits, and associations! All “free”, courtesy of other corporations!


Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

FDA Assessing the Results of Their Spin

Anyone who pays close attention to the FDA knows that it is just as trustworthy as…any government agency chock full of wholly-owned beneficiaries of the industry it is supposed to regulate.

But like all companies, politicians and patricians today, the FDA sees such ugly little details of reality to be irrelevant: What matters to them is their image, as created by their Image Whitewashing Department (usually known as “Media Relations”).

They just want to see if the department is earning its pay.

NoahVail (profile) says:

I'm not sure this is a problem

Like any good narcissist, I post stuff on public services that I want people to read.

When I post criticism about the FDA, the FDA is at the top of the list of who I’d want to read it.

That’s how public media works. I have an clear expectation that anything I post publicly can be scraped and compiled into a database, at any time.

Saying the FDA shouldn’t have it is even dumber than saying Gov employees can’t read classified stuff after it’s been leaked online.

Now if the FDA were buying my browsing history from my ISP, or copying my email from my provider, I’d be seriously cheesed because I didn’t overtly consent to it.

But that isn’t the case. The FDA wants info that I put out there for everyone.
Besides. it may be the only time my Gov actually cares about something I say.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: I'm not sure this is a problem

This is pretty much my position as well. I have two kinds of personal information: information I freely disclose and distribute (my comments on this site are a good example of that) and information that I only disclose on a conditional basis to select entities. It doesn’t bother me at all if the government (or company or individual) compiles all of my “free for everyone” information. If it did, I wouldn’t make it free for everyone.

The conditional information, however, I guard jealously.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I'm not sure this is a problem

I totally agree. I’d have a problem if, for example, they tried to get my real name when I posted something anonymously. Or if they managed to access a Facebook post that I had set to “friends only”. But I have no problem with them searching for references to themselves.

But, of course, it seems like a total waste to subcontract this. If you’re going to monitor sentiment – which is not a bad thing to do – you should really do it yourself. Giving someone else the job of telling you what people think of you seems like a recipe for disaster.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re:

Methought the FDA was supposed to ensure that drugs, foodstuffs, etc., are safe for public consumption. Why are they acting like a global corporation when they should be quietly getting on with their jobs?

Can anybody say “Pork?” ‘Cause I heard something going “Oink.”

This is our money and we need to hold them accountable for how they spend it. Call your congresscritters, people, and get them to work for their wages! This shall not stand.

Anonymous Coward says:

Simple answer: IMHO (is there any other kind?) The FDA is bought and paid for by the pharma industry. If you want to shut both down, create a Federal requirement for the pharma industry to demonstrate and document the exact mechanism of operation, and all possible side effects for all drugs presented for approval. That’s the only way we’ll get, in any fashion, protected.

The fact is the pharma industry hasn’t the first foggy notion of how or why most drugs operate, and worse, what possible side effects they present. Heck, they don’t even know how or why Willow Bark extract (aspirin) works. In me, two aspirin will kill a category 5 toothache. My wife can eat the whole bottle with almost no effect. Do they know why? Not a clue!

We’ve been used as a mobile, free, testing service almost forever (kinda like software). If the problems get too big, or get too much press (remember Thalidomide?), the “drug” disappears, and maybe someone gets paid off – OOPs.

This should all be proven BEFORE the drug gets approved, but, you know, PROFIT! Besides, following all those laws and regulations is time consuming and, most important, EXPENSIVE. Can’t have that, now can we? So, they buy the approval agency. Simple!

artp (profile) says:

Re: That's what the law already says

That is how it is SUPPOSED to work.

The manufacturer is supposed to document the design, manufacture and installation of the process that creates the product. They are also supposed to document operations.

Specifically, the documentation shall be sufficient by itself, with no other help, to recreate the manufacturing process that makes the product. Results must be reproducible and identical between original and duplicate systems.

Somehow they have forgotten that. Now, they are not the only ones with their fingers in the cookie jar. Congress has exempted certain products (COUGH GMOs COUGH) from going through the entire validation process.

But, if the FDA had bothered to ask, I would have been glad to tell them, “You have corrupted your mission and are now working against your original charter! We need another Upton Sinclair to get people riled enough to want to do something about the state of the food production systems.”

The sad part is that the FDA actually DOES enforce their regs sometimes. They have taken over QA activities from several pharmaceutical manufacturers. And we still have a problem. That should tell you how big a problem we have.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of interest in the US public for getting riled about anything but pro sports and movie stars.

That One Guy (profile) says:

So they want to find out what people think of them, by doing something that’s likely to seriously annoy or anger a ton of people… someone really didn’t think that one through, that or the program has been on the back-burners for a few years now, and they didn’t bother to see if public conditions were any different when they finally pulled it out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Or the FDA could just have one of their internal IT wizards (I assume they have at least one!) set up a public/consumer comment section on their Web site.

Then they would need to pay serious attention to the fucking results – and also get used to the ‘F’ word. They are likely see all of its variants quite frequently!

Of course that might result in some really useful public/consumer feedback, and data points on real perceived/actual FDA performance. Such data could be evaluated and analysed, to to get a first hand view of their perceived performance from the people who actually fund the FDA existence (though their taxes), as opposed to the corporations that fund their extra’s and perks.

That, of course, assumes they really want something more than a high priced, convenient, spray of reputation colored, ‘social-based camouflage paint’!
Lots of (dis)-Reputation Management scum around to contract for that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Because they have nothing better to do?

How about doing food inspection and drug testing? How many recalls of dangerous drugs, that have been approved for years, should we be subject to? How many cases of salmonella and listeria are we to endure because they don’t have the budget required? Want to know what I think? OK, DO YOUR FUCKING JOB, and then we will see if there is anything else we NEED from you. Maybe we need to declare salmonella a terrorist plot to get some action, or dirty food processing plants a subversive plot. Maybe we could have them regulate the financial industry, couldn’t do any worse the the SEC. I’ve just an ass full of Gov agency make work projects, especially when they can’t seem to DO THEIR FUCKING JOB as it is.

gordonh (profile) says:

If the FDA wants to know the public sentiment, let the FDA ask us. We will be more than happy to bombard them with our opinions. I also believe that the FDA is bought and sold. I have a relative who works for the FDA and I am not convinced that the FDA is working in our interest. If so, we would not have aspartame on the market, we would not be using high fructose corn syrup in our food, we would not be using supplements in our food that other countries ban. And don’t forget about the tryptophan debacle in the 80s. One manufacturer had a bad product and ALL tryptophan was banned? Has the FDA banned all aspirin when one company product was tampered with? No, but people were using tryptophan for mild depression at the same time that a big drug company was pushing Prozac? See the connection?

ALDO says:


FDA Needs to be ABOLISHED AND PROSECUTED TO THE FULLEST EXTENT OF THE LAW (THE REAL LAW) NOT THE BIASED LUCIFERIAN ELITE’S VERSION OF LAW. And while we are at it, let’s throw in the CIA, FBI, NSA, DHS and all the other POLICE STATE PSYCHO FREAK CONTROL AGENCIES that are taking away all our freedom and every good thing we have ever known and enjoyed in the past. Just read that these satanic control have banned Roquefort (blue cheese) GOAT CHEESE! I guess it must be TOO HEALTHY and TASTY for us GOYIM. Just like unpasteurized (undead) milk. I hope these inhuman sacks of excrement ROAST IN HELL FOREVER AND EVER. There. Goon Squad. F.ATAL D.RUGS A.LLOWED HYPOCRITES. Now you know exactly what I think of you. And I am not the least bit afraid of you either. Come and get it chumps.

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