If you are an influential user of a Bloomberg terminal—the $24,000-per-year glorified computers that the company sells to Wall Street trading firms, politicians, and banks—there's a chance the company's news division has a file on you that's chock full of personal information about your family, your predilections, and your 24-hour contact information. And it's accessible to all 2,400 journalists at Bloomberg News.
Bloomberg has been facing down a maelstrom this week, ever since it emerged that the company's news division has for years encouraged its reporters to access internal company information to snoop on how the subjects of their reporting use Bloomberg terminals. Reporters could see when people logged on and off, read transcripts of their chats with customer service, even see when they were checking job listings. When Goldman Sachs learned that its executives had been surveilled, the New York Post got word and all hell broke loose.
In the wake of those disclosures, several former Bloomberg reporters reached out to Gawker to point out another way the company uses its terminals to capture and share personal information about customers: the "reporter's note" function.
Every Bloomberg subscriber has a bio page with the user's photograph, employment status, and office telephone number. At the bottom of each page is a link called REPN, accessible to any of the 2,400 journalists Bloomberg employs worldwide.
REPN, which is also searchable by name, is like an internal data dump where Bloomberg journalists share intel on sources. That's where reporters are encouraged to leave private cellphone and home phone numbers, email addresses, interests and hobbies, best time of day to call, whether the source is married or has a girlfriend or has recently separated, and details on how to get them to start talking—try to bring up his two daughters, hates the cost of private school tuition—all concerning highly-influential, market-moving bankers and politicians.
Many newsrooms keep shared internal files on sources—how to reach a deputy mayor after hours, etc.—and any reporter would love to get her hands on those dossiers. Information-sharing, whether formal or informal, is sort of the point of journalism. Banks also keep similar files on reporters.
But the extensive use of REPN at Bloomberg is notable for three reasons: 1) It's just one of many, many ways the company—where "stalking is simply part of the culture"—obsessively logs data about its employees and customers. It's another watch tower in the Bloomberg panopticon. 2) While most power players wouldn't be surprised to find that a private cell phone number they gave to a reporter was shared around a newsroom, they might not expect that personal details they divulged about, say the status of their marriage were being systematically recorded for corporate use.
And, most importantly, 3) former Bloomberg sources say they REPN information was sometimes misused or shared outside the newsroom.
One former Bloomberg reporter told Gawker:
I will give you an example how this was abused by me. My parents had an issue with an airline booking, and I wrote to the CEO of that airline (without mentioning I was from Bloomberg or how I got that email) and the issues was resolved. I have been told that many reporters also abuse that function for different reasons like asking for jobs.
"If someone did that, it's a clear violation of our policies," said Bloomberg spokesman Ty Trippet.
As journalism professor Chris Roush, a former Bloomberg News reporter, noted in Talking Biz News, Bloomberg's notoriously autocratic news chief Matthew Winkler once shared a source's REPN page with her:
(Editor in chief Matt Winkler once showed this feature to one of my beverage sources, who was incensed that I had entered into the system that she was sometimes difficult to work with.)
Added the former reporter:
The terminal gives blatant opportunities to pry into other people's affairs. And its not just clients. If I think Betty Liu is someone that I may be interested in knowing, I can check if she is married, her home address, spouse name, phone number, etc. I can give out the info to others [to] capitalise in whatever they see fit. It's eerie. There is no privacy for anyone, staff, clients, personalities.
That includes Bloomberg reporters themselves, whose keystrokes are also being logged. If the REPN data was used so cavalierly by Bloomberg News staffers, it's an open question whether it was ever accessed to help grease sales, which is of course the company's bread and butter. “It’s only available in the newsroom and not to any other part of the compay. Period," stressed a Bloomberg News spokesperson.
Update: A Bloomberg News spokesperson clarified that the REPN database covered heads of state and newsmakers, beyond just clients of its terminal service.
[Image by Jim Cooke]