A Culture of Spying at Bloomberg

While government spying on citizens has been a hot topic of conversation lately, it’s worth noting that such snooping can also happen in the private sector. The Bloomberg wire service, founded by anti-gun nut New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, has admitted that its reporters have been spying on customers of its business data service for years and using that information to generate news stories.

Through an established company policy, reporters for the news service were given exclusive access to private customer records for anyone they wanted to look up. Once they pulled up a user’s records, they had the ability to see that person’s last login date, his contact information, view her requests for technical support, and even see what types of data that the customer was calling up within the vast Bloomberg financial database.

After the practice was exposed in April by investment bank Goldman Sachs, the rest of the news media began poking around in the story, albeit only in the business pages. What has emerged is a portrait of a company where spying on customers and employees is basically genetic.

“We were told again and again and again, find ways to use what’s on the terminal to write stories,” an anonymous former Bloomberg employee told the New York Times, describing a function of the database they had access to called “UUID.”

“They never said ‘Oh, please be careful and don’t breach any kind of privacy.’”

Since the spying was brought to light, Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler apologized but tried to simply brush the scandal away in a blog post in which he announced that reporter access to customer data had been revoked:

Our reporters should not have access to any data considered proprietary. I am sorry they did. The error is inexcusable. Last month, we immediately changed our policy so that reporters now have no greater access to information than our customers have. Removing this access will have no effect on Bloomberg news-gathering. […]

As we’ve grown, and as data privacy has become a central concern to our clients, we should go above and beyond in protecting data, especially when we have even the appearance of impropriety. And that’s why we’ve made these recent changes to what reporters can access.

But the scandal won’t simply go away. Officials at the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Department of Treasury, and also the Securities and Exchange Commission have all been reported to be looking into the spying. Ironically enough, all of these agencies are Bloomberg customers and thus, in all likelihood, victims of the spying themselves. That was all but confirmed by the New York Times yesterday by a person whom the newspaper said had recently left the company:

“You could see a map of every ship at sea that has cargo carrying orange juice,” said Times’s source. “Or, someone would say ‘Check out UUID. Ben Bernanke was logged on today.’ ”

Such stalking behavior at Bloomberg is pervasive according to online business magazine Quartz:

Within the company, stalking is simply part of the culture. Employees can look up—using the <FON> function on their terminals—the last time anyone scanned into or out of a Bloomberg office, which they use to keep legitimate tabs on coworkers and, more voyeuristically, to track their executives on business trips (“Winkler just badged out of Tokyo!”). Some staff make a habit of looking up the last time Michael Bloomberg—the company’s founder, longtime chief executive, and now mayor of New York—visited his family’s foundation, which uses the same security system.

Many current and former Bloomberg employees say they have been told the company keeps a record of every action taken on a terminal, whether by staff or outside customers, in a practice known as keystroke logging. The data are closely held within the company but can be used for everything from assisting customers with their machines to investigating employees for violations of their confidentiality agreement.

Did Bloomberg violate the law in giving reporters access to customer data? It’s unclear at this point but the company has clearly compromised its journalistic reputation. More should be said about this scandal.

Just imagine if Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation engaged in this type of behavior. We’d hear no end to the stories trying to tar and feather him for such policies. Instead, thus far, the reporting on the Bloomberg culture of spying has almost dried up save for the excellent New York Times piece cited above. One hopes the Times story will inspire some other publications to begin their own investigations.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013