Wal-Mart defends security procedures after ex-employee details surveillance

Associated Press • Apr 4, 2007 at 11:15 AM

A fired Wal-Mart security worker confirmed a newspaper interview Wednesday in which he said he was part of a large surveillance operation that spied on company workers, critics, vendors and consultants. The company defended its practices.

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, who was also fired, have declined repeated requests from The Associated Press to talk about their security activities.

But in a text message to The Associated Press Wednesday, 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 Information Systems Division.

"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 call "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.

Companies increasingly are monitoring their employees, said Larry Ponemon, founder of The Ponemon Institute, a research foundation that focuses on privacy and data protection practices of companies, but surveilling vendors and consultants is "beyond the realm of what legitimate companies do," he said.

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