Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Uncle Sam Is Watching You. No Not That Uncle Sam

Hmmm...Looks like boys or Mordor have been getting busy with the eye of Sauron. Wal-Mart defended its security measures after a fired employee went public with allegations he was part of a large surveillance operation that spied on company workers, critics, vendors and consultants. "'Spied' is such a nasty word," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark. We prefer to think of it as pro-active listening."

The world's largest retailer declined to comment on specific allegations made by former security technician Bruce Gabbard, 44, to the Wall Street Journal. Wal-Mart reiterated that it had promoted Gabbard and his supervisor for recording phone calls and intercepting pager messages. Then fired them for talking about it. "It's sort of our version of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell,'" Clark said. "And they told."

"Like most totalitarian governments, we are allowed to have systems in place, including software systems, to monitor threats to our profit margins, potential union activity and to monitor our people," Clark told reporters. "It's no different than the CIA, NSA, or Costco."

Gabbard confirmed the allegations that he was part of a broader surveillance operation approved by the company. The team, the Threat Research and Analysis Group, was a unit of Wal-Mart's Covert Operations and Market Research Group.

Wal-Mart's Clark noted that the company had gone public with Gabbard's phone monitoring and had self-reported the issue to federal prosecutors to determine if any laws had been broken. "The minute we read the article in the Wall Street Journal, we covered our butts," Clark said. "Umm...let me rephrase that."

Wal-Mart's union-backed critics, whom Gabbard identified as among the surveillance targets, accused the retailer of being paranoid, childish and desperate. "(Wal-Mart) seems like an organization that has a culture that doesn't trust its employees and it certainly doesn't trust its vendors or consultants," said Larry Ponemon, founder of The Ponemon Institute, a research foundation that focuses on privacy and data protection practices of companies.

"What's his point?" asked Clark.

Gabbard told the newspaper that Wal-Mart sent an employee to infiltrate an anti-Wal-Mart group to learn if it was going to protest at the annual shareholders' meeting and investigated McKinsey & Co. employees it believed leaked a memo about Wal-Mart's health care plans. "It wasn't like a 007 operation or anything," Gabbard said. "More like 005. You know Wal-mart, always the lowest."

Ponemon said that most of the surveillance tactics allegedly approved by Wal-Mart appear to be legal, including the dispatch of a spy to an anti-Wal-Mart gathering, since the meeting was public.

"That's good to hear," said Clark. "But it doesn't really matter because if it wasn't legal we'd make it legal because, well, we're Wal-mart."

Clark said she could not comment on Gabbard's claim of blanket approval because "that's a pretty broad statement. We wouldn't be able to comment on that without knowing the details he's referring to. I mean, is he including the time we sicced the IRS on that union in New Jersey, or the time we got the government in China to arrest those labor organizers? See we just don't know what he knows."

Clark said the Threat Research group is no longer operating in the same manner that it did prior to the discovery of the unauthorized recording of telephone conversations. "It's been moved to an undisclosed location."

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