Wal-Mart under investigation for spying

A Wal-Mart store sign in Illinois

TEXT OF STORY

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Its prices may be low, but its profile is high and controversy seems to be the cost of doing business for the world's biggest retailer. Now, Wal-Mart is defending its security practices. This after a fired surveillance technician told the Wall Street Journal that he was involved in a surveillance operation, spying on critics of the discount giant, as well as non-Wal-Mart employees, consultants and shareholders. Marketplace's Bob Moon reports, a U.S. attorney has already been investigating the case.


BOB MOON: There have been no claims thus far that Wal-Mart's practices broke any laws.

In one case, the fired technician said he located photos of a company critic on a computer that was open to the Internet. They were then used to help identify Nu Wexler of the group Wal-Mart Watch ahead of a company conference.

Wexler says the pictures were innocent, but the activity wasn't.

NU WEXLER: You know, the idea that they're collecting vacation photos of private citizens is pretty spooky.

At the University of Minnesota, corporate ethics expert Norman Bowie thinks the Internet has made corporate criticism so effective and pervasive that a growing number of businesses seem to be engaging in more aggressive snooping.

NORMAN BOWIE: It's awfully hard to do good research on this. It's not the kind of thing you can go out and measure, because people try to keep it hidden if they do it.

He says the irony is, such a "bare-knuckles" response can end up doing even worse harm to a firm's reputation.

That's a caution echoed by Mark Rowe at Bentley College's Center for Business Ethics.

MARK ROWE: Ultimately, it comes down to a question of trust — whether people, within the organization or outside the organization, feel they're able to trust a particular organization when they're dealing with it.

Wal-Mart argues it has what it calls a "corporate responsibility" to monitor any threats to its data network, intellectual property and its people.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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