It may not be what you think.
April 10, 2007
Wal-Mart has won a temporary restraining order against a fired employee who spilled the beans about the company’s spying operations to the Wall Street Journal on April 4.
Bruce Gabbard told the Journal that he was part of a sophisticated company surveillance operation that spied not only on employees but on shareholders and critics. The outfit was called the Threat Research and Analysis Group. He confirmed his story to the Associated Press.
But he won’t be confirming any more stories for a while, since a judge in Benton, Arkansas, home of Wal-Mart, granted the gag order late Friday, April 6. Wal-Mart successfully argued that Gabbard had gabbed about confidential corporate information. The local judge also ordered Gabbard to cough up “the names of all persons to whom he has transmitted, since January 15, 2007, any Wal-Mart information,” AP reported.
According to Gabbard, Wal-Mart’s spies kept tabs on several groups, including the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). After the story broke, Wal-Mart said it regretted that shareholder groups had been monitored. But that’s not enough for the Interfaith Center. On April 9, it demanded a formal apology.
“We were surprised and disappointed to read the results of the Wall Street Journal investigative report,” four leaders of the group said in a statement. “We view such actions as a serious breach of the trust relationship between shareholders and their company. . . . We ask that Wal-Mart formally apologize to investors and to others whose expectations of privacy has been breached.”
Signing the letter was Sister Judy Byron of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, U.S.-Ontario Province; Sister Susan Mika, who represents the Benedictine Sisters of Boerne, Texas; Father Michael Hoolahan, the interim executive director of the ICCR; and Mark Regier, chair of the ICCR’s governing board.
The Wall Street Journal article said that Wal-Mart had done “some preliminary background work on the potential threat assessment” of the Benedictine Sisters of Boerne, Texas.
Another group the company went to great lengths to keep tabs on was Wal-Mart Watch. Gabbard told The Wall Street Journal that he found photos of Nu Wexler, a spokesperson for the group, on a South Carolina Democratic Party website, and shared the photos with company personnel.
“Wal-Mart’s actions are paranoid, childish and desperate,” Wexler said in a statement on his group’s website. The company’s “thug-like tactics only confirm their critics’ charges. Wal-Mart should stop playing with spy toys and take the criticism of their business model seriously.”
In addition to Wal-Mart Watch, the company also reportedly was concerned about ACORN and Up Against the Wal.
Wal-Mart sent “a long-haired employee wearing a wireless microphone to Up Against the Wal’s Fayetteville, Ark., gathering, and eavesdropped from nearby,” the Journal reported, relaying Gabbard’s story. “We followed around the perimeter with a surveillance van,” he said.
In response to the article, Wal-Mart issued a statement that said, in its entirety: “Our senior management, our board and their advisors regularly conduct thorough, strategic reviews of all aspects of our business. That’s just good governance. We look at a full range of alternatives, many of which are considered and rejected, and we will not comment specifically on any of them.”