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Should IT Departments Oversee Spying Operations?

Wal-Mart always seems to be in the news for one reason or another. Supporters tout its pioneering marketing model and groundbreaking success in offering low-cost goods to consumers and keeping operational costs low. And then there is Wal-Mart's leading-edge IT department and its cutting-edge use and investigation of bleeding-edge technology -- ever in the pursuit of keeping costs low and maximizing profit.
Wal-Mart always seems to be in the news for one reason or another. Supporters tout its pioneering marketing model and groundbreaking success in offering low-cost goods to consumers and keeping operational costs low. And then there is Wal-Mart's leading-edge IT department and its cutting-edge use and investigation of bleeding-edge technology -- ever in the pursuit of keeping costs low and maximizing profit.Critics claim the company badly underpays and compensates employees, undercuts local businesses and is a different sort of leader when it comes to the practice of questionable labor and competitive strategies.

In recent weeks, a new wrinkle has emerged in Wal-Mart lore that should provide fresh grist for the endless debates about the company. It's an issue I can't help but wonder what our readers think about.

Wal-Mart recently fired two employees for illegally recording conversations with a news reporter, after notifying authorities about the incident. One of the fired employees claims the company maintains an internal surveillance organization, which keeps tabs on company critics, employees and who knows what else. What really caught my attention, was an AP story I read that said the surveillance unit, called the Threat Research and Analysis Group, was a unit of Wal-Mart's Information Systems Division. Other stories from other sources say the group worked on the third floor of Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Ark., technology offices.

The issue of corporate spying aside, I found it interesting that this group is supposedly attached to the IT department. On the one hand, given the role technology can play in monitoring employee computer activity and network access attempts, all fairly normal corporate activities - it's not surprising IT would be involved in corporate surveillance. On the other hand, keeping tabs on critics and competitors, regardless of the technology deployed, would seem to be an activity better suited for the oversight of the legal or corporate security department.

What do you think? Is the idea of attaching a corporate spy group (or whatever you want to call it) to IT logical, or do you find it kind of creepy? Maybe this isn't that unusual - especially in a post-9/11 world, so I am wondering, does your IT department assist with or engage in such activities? As an IT worker, is this something you want to be involved in? Or, as an IT manager, something you feel equipped to oversee or contribute to? Let us know what you think by commenting below.

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