Bloomberg's Terminal Snooping More Widespread Than Wall Street Thought

According to an alarming report published by The New York Times on Friday, reporters at the company were for decades not only permitted, but frequently and forcefully encouraged, to monitor potential story subjects with the terminal software's U UID function.

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"We are in the often-difficult position of reporting on our customers," Bloomberg News editor Matthew Winkler wrote in The Bloomberg Way, the once-secret journalism manual used to teach reporters about the style and ethics of writing for the news division of Michael Bloomberg's eponymous financial services company, which in the past few months has been accused of spying on Wall Street clients who use Bloomberg's powerful terminals to track financial data.

In reality, Bloomberg staffers consider the position pretty easy. According to a report in The New York Times on Friday, reporters at the company were for years not only permitted, but frequently and forcefully encouraged, to monitor Blomberg's terminal customers for news. The terminal's UUID function, which tracked, among other things, where and when customers log into their terminal accounts, was disabled last month. But, among the Bloomberg sources who spoke to The Times, a former Italy bureau chief said he used the function to surreptitiously track the movements of the CEO of Fiat as he traveled across the United States. An unnamed "senior executive" at Bloomberg added: "It’s not like this was some deep Bloomberg secret. If it’s on the terminal, we’d say go for it."

It would be disingenuous, of course, to argue that reporters outside of Bloomberg don't challenge and sometimes cross ethical boundaries. As John Cook at Gawker pointed out nearly a year ago, both Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporters who blew open the Watergate burglary scandal for which President Richard Nixon later resigned, relied on techniques that would send any public editor today into palpitations. Bernstein, for example, secretly compiled phone and financial records of Bernard Barker, one of the Watergate burglars. And, as a Bloomberg LP chairman recently explained at staff meeting, reporters at the company are hired primarily to increase the value of the company's profitable terminal business, not afflict the comfortable. "The only journalism that matters is the kind that moves markets," the chairman said, according to a Times source. (This sentiment may be why Bloomberg News has never won a Pulitzer Prize.)

With these fresh allegations of misconduct, however, the company's news division threatens to shrink Bloomberg's dominance in the financial data industry. As the Times points out, competitors like Reuters and Dow Jones are already playing up the privacy features on their own proprietary terminals. This outcome would, of course, be doubly ironic. Bloomberg News was developed as a innovative alternative to fusty organs like The New York Times — and pretty much every newspaper ever — which on principle separates its reporters from its advertising staff, for fear of tainting the editorial product with any hint of impropriety or influence. At Bloomberg, reporters essentially functioned as advertisements for terminals, which deliver their scoops at breakneck speed before ever appearing on a public website. (Bloomberg was the first, by several seconds, to report that the Supreme Court had upheld the individual mandate last summer.) Now those same reporters, by using every tool of investigation at their disposal, have stained the product that pays for their salaries.

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