Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Feds Investigating Wal-Mart Tech Who Was Fired For Spying

By Sharon Gaudin
InformationWeek

Federal prosecutors are trying to determine if a Wal-Mart systems technician who was fired for spying on fellow employees broke any federal laws.

The world's largest retailer announced on Monday that executives there had fired a technician for intercepting text messages and recording telephone conversations without authorization. The employee's termination came after an internal investigation that started after one of the employee's colleagues "expressed concerns" about the recordings, according to a release from Wal-Mart.

Now the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Western District of Arkansas is investigating, says First Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Groom. Investigators are looking into whether the employee's actions violated federal law and, if so, if it was within her office's jurisdiction.

Groom wouldn't discuss federal laws regarding intercepting and recording communications.

"The company believes that these pager intercepts and the recordings of these telephone calls were wrong and has taken a number of actions to further strengthen our policies and controls," said Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's VP of corporate communications, in a written statement. "We reported these matters to the U.S. Attorney and have kept him informed throughout the course of our investigation."

Wal-Mart's internal investigation initially found that the technician had monitored and recorded telephone conversations between Wal-Mart public relations associates and a reporter from The New York Times, the company reports. The recordings were made over a four-month period between September, 2006, and January, 2007.

Wal-Mart notified The New York Times on Monday.

The company also reported that executives took disciplinary action against two management associates for failure to carry out their management duties.

Laws generally state that a telephone conversation may be recorded if one party has given his or her consent.

"Since Wal-Mart policies state that all electronic communications of associates using Wal-Mart communication systems are subject to monitoring and recording, Wal-Mart associates give their consent to the monitoring and recording of their calls," the company states in a written release. "Therefore, the unauthorized recording of telephone conversations by the systems technician did not violate any laws However, it is Wal-Mart's practice to record associate phone calls only in compelling circumstances and with written permission from the legal department. The threshold for this permission is high and limited to cases of high risk to the company or its associates, such as suspected criminal fraud or security issues."

Wal-Mart's release states that these recordings weren't authorized by the company and were in "direct violation of the established operational policy that forbids such activity without prior written approval from the legal department." The statement adds that the now-terminated employee didn't seek approval.

During Wal-Mart's investigation, the company also discovered that, in separate instances, the same technician had intercepted text messages and pages, including communications that didn't involve Wal-Mart associates, according to the company's release. "The interception of text messages and pages that do not involve Wal-Mart associates is not authorized by company policies under any circumstances," the company states.

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