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Wal-Mart fires systems technician over pretexting debacle

Discount giant Wal-Mart has fired an unidentified employee who was responsible for monitoring telephone conversations between a Wal-Mart public relations representative and a New York Times reporter, as well as intercepting various text messages and pages. The employee, who worked for Wal-Mart as a systems technician, had monitored the aforementioned phone calls between September 2006 and January 2007, and Wal-Mart was alerted to the activity on January 11 by an internal tipster. The company informed the New York Times of the incident on Monday.

Technically, recording the telephone conversations wasn't illegal. Federal and state laws dictate that recordings are O.K. if one of the parties gives consent, and since Wal-Mart's policies state that "all electronic communications of associates using Wal-Mart communication systems are subject to monitoring and recording," that counts as consent from that camp.

However, Wal-Mart claims to have practices that restrict company call monitoring to "compelling circumstances," calls that have been approved in writing from the company's legal department, and a few exceptions (for example, customer hotline calls). Since there was no written permission from Wal-Mart's legal department in the pretexting case, the recordings were a violation of its operational policy.

Additionally, the company's internal investigation revealed that the same systems technician had intercepted various text messages and pages, some of which did not involve Wal-Mart associates. This, too, is a violation of Wal-Mart policy.

The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, which includes Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, was notified of the incident by Wal-Mart's attorneys on January 13. On March 1, the U.S. Attorney's office informed the company that it would be launching a formal investigation into the recorded phone calls and intercepted text messages.

At this point, there is no word on whether the incident was an act on the part of an individual or if there was any connection further up in Wal-Mart's hierarchy, as in the Hewlett-Packard pretexting scandal that made headlines for much of last year.

UPDATE: Wal-Mart held a press conference Monday afternoon in which Mona Williams, vice president of corporate communications, answered questions from reporters concerning the pretexting incident. Williams repeatedly stressed that since it's now a federal investigation, the company cannot answer a whole lot of questions about it.

However, the press conference did reveal a few points:

-- there were other telephone conversations recorded by the terminated employee, but none of them involved journalists, "public figures," or people who could be identified as "Wal-Mart critics

-- in addition to the unidentified employee responsible for the pretexting, his supervisor has been fired as well and another manager has been "disciplined"

-- despite the termination of the supervisor, Williams still stressed that the systems technician was believed to have been acting alone

-- as far as Wal-Mart knows, the equipment used was owned by the company

-- the text messages were captured from pagers as well as personal digital assistants, but not ordinary cell phones.