The Bloomberg terminal scandal

Not nearly in the Murdoch hacking league, but it requires a cultural shift

The Bloomberg terminal-snooping story is a serious ethics problem, but I’ve read some awfully hysterical takes on it in the past couple of days. It’s time to get some perspective on what we know happened and just how wrong it was.

Adam Penenberg of Pando Daily wrote a head-scratcher headlined, “How is Bloomberg’s snooping different from News Corp.’s phone hacks?”

Because it’s not illegal? Because reading internal customer-service transcripts is not the same moral and ethical horror as hacking the voicemail of a murdered 13-year-old? Because they didn’t knowingly employ an ax-murder suspect—one convicted of planting cocaine on an innocent woman—to bribe government officials and hack phones? I dunno. Just a few off the top of my head.

The most over-the-top piece comes from Stuart Stevens, the guy who headed Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, who writes that the Bloomberg affair is worse than the News Corporation hacking scandal. Stevens knows not what he’s talking about.

Stevens writes in The Daily Beast that “Bloomberg Terminal Scandal Makes Bunga-Bunga Parties Seem Quaint,” comparing the political and media power of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to that of Silvio Berlusconi, and says that reporters were allowed to “peep and pry into the personal activities of important clients.”

Bloomberg is the nanny-state billionaire mayor of the biggest city in the country and owns a highly lucrative financial-data business that sidelines in news. Berlusconi was the super-corrupt billionaire prime minister of Italy who had a near monopoly on public and private Italian television while in office. The analogy with Bloomberg really isn’t there.

And it’s stretching it to say what Bloomberg News was up to here was spying on the “personal activities” of clients. Reporters could tell when a client had logged on to his or her Bloomberg terminal, could read help-desk chats, and could see what high-level functions they had used—as in Jamie Dimon looked at, say, bond indexes. Matt Winkler, in his apology on Sunday, wrote that “At no time did reporters have access to trading, portfolio, monitor, blotter or other related systems. Nor did they have access to clients’ messages to one another. They couldn’t see the stories that clients were reading or the securities clients might be looking at.”

In other words, the information Bloomberg reporters could get at was quite limited. It’s hardly a huge scandal that Bloomberg reporters could find out how long it had been since someone had logged on to their terminal, which is effectively the most expensive social network in the world, as Heidi N. Moore writes. She also notes this:

It is the height of irony that those financial firms, who make their living by collecting and slicing data on client trades, are complaining that Bloomberg was making use of some data on their traders.

That’s not to minimize the snooping here, it’s just to keep it in perspective. As I said last week, Bloomberg’s journalists should never have had access to this customer-service data in the first place. Executives apparently knew there was a problem with this years ago but did nothing to fix it. There’s always the possibility that there are other shoes yet to drop.

And it’s a bigger problem that reporters could see stats on what functions clients were using. Winkler wrote Sunday that “This is akin to being able to see how many times someone used Microsoft Word vs. Excel,” but it still could have provided leads on a very broad level on what executives and government officials were thinking about. It was just simply unfair and unethical for Bloomberg News to let reporters access that information.

So how did it happen? One of the smartest things I’ve read about this scandal is Zach Seward’s Quartz piece on how the cultural, um, eccentricities of Bloomberg dovetail with what we know about the terminal snooping.

At Bloomberg, omniscience is a feature not a bug.
The company’s New York City skyscraper unfurls around its courtyard like a panopticon. Inside, the decor is punctuated at every turn with fish tanks. No one has an office to hide in, and the meeting rooms are enclosed in clear glass…
Within the company, stalking is simply part of the culture. Employees can look up—using the 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.

That’s how this scandal happened. And it’s not enough for Bloomberg to disable a couple of functions on reporters’ terminals. Bloomberg News is a big player now, one of the most important news organizations in the world.

This is a perfect time to rethink its culture.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,