It's not unusual for companies to monitor social media in order to 'protect' their brands. Microsoft, for example, makes dossiers on journalists who write about the company. Yet Walmart is allegedly "always watching," and went the extra distance to spy on employees by hiring defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and even received help from the FBI.
Walmart was most interested in gathering surveillance of employees involved with the group OUR Walmart, which planned Black Friday protests in 2012. OUR Walmart was advocating for higher wages, predictable schedules, better healthcare coverage, and the right to unionize. Walmart's surveillance efforts were described in over 1,000 pages of "emails, reports, playbooks, charts, and graphs as well as testimony," according to Bloomberg Businessweek which reviewed the documents. The testimony, which was given earlier this year to the National Labor Relations Board, claims Walmart hired Lockheed Martin and received help from the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Back in 2011, OUR Walmart presented its 12-point list to Walmart's U.S. labor relations chief Karen Casey; it asked for better wages so no Walmart associate would have to rely on government assistance. After Casey and Walmart executives in Bentonville, Arkansas, learned about OUR Walmart, the company ramped up its "Delta team." A Delta document sent to Walmart's Analytical Research Center asked when Lockheed Martin would provide more analysts.
The Analytical Research Center, or ARC, is part of Walmart's global security division. Ken Senser, a former FBI officer, oversees the entire group. The executive responsible for ARC was Steve Dozier, according to Casey's testimony. He was director of the Arkansas State Police before he joined Walmart in 2007. "When we received word of potential strikes and disruptive activity on Black Friday 2012, that's when we started to ask the ARC to work with us," Casey said during her testimony. "ARC had contracted with Lockheed leading up to Black Friday to help source open social media sites."
Lockheed Martin is one of the biggest defense contractors in the world. Although it's best known for making fighter jets and missile systems, it also has an information technology division that offers cybersecurity and data analytics services. Tucked into that is a little-known operation called LM Wisdom, which has been around since 2011. LM Wisdom is described on Lockheed's website as a tool "that monitors and analyzes rapidly changing open source intelligence data … [that] has the power to incite organized movements, riots and sway political outcomes." A brochure depicts yellow tape with "crime scene" on it, an armored SWAT truck, and a word cloud with "MAFIA" in huge type.
Bloomberg found only one reference to Wisdom [pdf] in the reviewed documents; it came from Lockheed analyst Christian Blandford and pertained to a nine-minute-old tweet by artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez.
While anything said on social media could come back to bite you, and OUR Walmart activists expected their social media posts to be "watched," Rodriguez pointed out, "We're artists, not ISIS."
By mid-April 2013, after Walmart execs had heard about an organized "Ride for Respect" demonstration, a Walmart Delta team operation began. "When global security heard that members of the Occupy movement might join the protests at corporate headquarters, they began working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces," Bloomberg reported.
Common Dreams reported that Mary Pat Tifft, a Wisconsin Walmart employee for 27 years, said, "We are fighting for all workers to be paid a fair wage and enough hours to put food on the table and provide for our families. To think that Walmart found us such a threat that they would hire a defense contractor and engage the FBI is a mind-blowing abuse of power."
The Black Friday Delta team was "more efficient" by 2013, and its playbook, or Black Friday guide, "noted that the global security team and labor relations were monitoring open source social media to alert and prepare stores where demonstrations were expected, and instructed employees 'to report any suspected and/or actual activity,'" according to Bloomberg.
Monitoring employees' social media accounts is not unusual, but Walmart might be in trouble if it punished dissident associates for those posts. Walmart claims social media posts or partaking in protests had nothing to do with employees who were penalized or fired. Instead, it said any punitive actions were the result of the company's attendance policy.
Walmart issued the following statement: "We are firmly committed to the safety and security of our 2.2 million associates as well as the 260 million customers we serve each week. It's important to remember that Walmart is the largest company in the world with 11,500 stores in 28 countries. Unfortunately, there are occasions when outside groups attempt to deliberately disrupt our business and on behalf of our customers and associates we take action accordingly."
A decision about this case may come in early 2016, but it's not the first time Walmart has been accused of using "sophisticated surveillance" from its "Bat Cave" to target "employees, journalists, stockholders and critics." Way back in 2007, Democracy Now reported that Walmart had acquired a system which had previously been used by the Defense Department, and was running a surveillance operation headed up by a former CIA agent and being run by FBI agents.