Invading The Privacy Of Paying Customers

After the revelation that Bloomberg journalists had been accessing user information on Bloomberg’s computer system, Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler clarifies what information was compromised:

[Reporters] could see a user’s login history and when a login was created. Second, they could see high-level types of user functions on an aggregated basis, with no ability to look into specific security information. This is akin to being able to see how many times someone used Microsoft Word vs. Excel. And, finally, they could see information about help desk inquiries. … 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.

Adam Penenberg connects the episode to another media scandal:

How different is this from News Corp. and its phone hacking scandal?

With Bloomberg you have customers paying roughly $20,000 a year per terminal and rely on them to help execute trades with vast sums of money at stake. With the phone hacking scandal you had employees of Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers accessing voicemails belonging to politicians, celebrities, and the British Royal Family. … If you think about it, Bloomberg reporters’ actions were not dissimilar to Gallagher and News Corp.’s. They intercepted information they were not supposed to have and gained unauthorized access to customers’ accounts. The difference: The latter is illegal. The former? It’s hard to say.

Neil Irwin argues that the incident reveals tension in the Bloomberg business model:

You can’t think about Bloomberg News without understanding that this is the ecosystem in which it exists. The journalists there create some excellent work on topics that have nothing to do with financial markets—but their bread and butter, their raison d’etre is to be one more thing that makes the Bloomberg terminal something that financial professionals can’t afford not to have. For Bloomberg, in other words, the terminal business is so lucrative and so important, that it can spare no expense to make sure that if a plane crashes in Mozambique or Hungary appoints a new central banker or, say, a senior executive of a major investment bank has been forced out of his job, the news will pop up on a Bloomberg terminal first.

Which brings us back to the events of the last few days. The practice of letting journalists access information about when subscribers had logged in and what broad categories of data they accessed pits the two imperatives of Bloomberg’s strategy against each other. On the one hand, it wants to do everything it can to ensure that its reporters are drumming up information that the competition isn’t. On the other, anything that discomfits the subscribers who are paying the bills could endanger the whole enterprise.

Kevin Roose doubts this will affect Wall Street’s “Bloomberg addiction”:

Terminal clients who are offended at the breach of privacy can take some steps — renegotiating their contracts with Bloomberg, moving certain extra-sensitive functions like IM off the terminal — but unless they’re willing to radically overhaul their company’s work flow at great expense and annoyance, they can’t just leave.

So while media watchers might rejoice in a legendarily secretive and cutthroat media organization coming under the microscope for a privacy breach, they shouldn’t celebrate too hard. After the privacy issues are tied up and a few pro forma steps are taken to put clients at ease, it will be back to business as usual for Bloomberg.