Wal-Mart defended its security measures after a fired employee went public Wednesday with allegations of extensive corporate surveillance of the retailer's critics, consultants and shareholders.
The world's largest retailer declined to comment on specific allegations made by former security technician Bruce Gabbard, 44, to the Wall Street Journal in a report published Wednesday. Wal-Mart reiterated that it had fired Gabbard and his supervisor last month for violating company policy by recording phone calls and intercepting pager messages.
"Like most major corporations, it is our corporate responsibility to have systems in place, including software systems, to monitor threats to our network, intellectual property and our people," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark said.
Gabbard was fired after recording phone calls to and from a New York Times reporter and intercepting pager messages.
Gabbard and his former supervisor, Jason Hamilton, have declined repeated requests from The Associated Press to talk about their security activities.
But in a text message to The Associated Press, Gabbard Wednesday confirmed the allegations as reported by the Journal.
"I can confirm everything in the WSJ story is correct except the glass wall comment which I didn't make," Gabbard wrote, referring to a description of the Threat Group's glass-enclosed work area at Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, which the Journal said employees had nicknamed "The Bat Cave."
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.
"These situations are limited to cases which are high risk to the company or our associates, such as criminal fraud or security issues," she said.
Wal-Mart's union-backed critics, whom Gabbard identified as among the surveillance targets, accused the retailer of being "paranoid, childish and desperate."
"They should stop playing with spy toys and take the criticism of their business model seriously. The success of the company depends on it," said Nu Wexler, spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch. According to the Wall Street Journal report, the company found personal photos of Wexler and tracked his plans to attend Wal-Mart's annual meeting.
Gabbard told the Wall Street Journal he was part of a large, sophisticated surveillance operation by the Threat Research and Analysis Group, a unit of Wal-Mart's Information Systems Division.
Gabbard told the Journal he recorded the calls on his own, but added many of his activities were approved by Wal-Mart. The Journal said other employees and security firms confirmed parts of his account.
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."
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 also uses software programs to read e-mails sent by workers using private e-mail accounts, he said.
Clark declined to comment on specific allegations.
Asked about McKinsey, she said, "We continue to work closely with McKinsey and we have no evidence that anyone there ever inappropriately shared confidential information."
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.
"There have been changes in leadership, and we have strengthened our practices and protocols in this area," she said.
Wal-Mart announced changes in the group at the time it made Gabbard's eavesdropping and firing public.
By Marcus Kabel, AP Business Writer
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)