“Although we have long made limited
customer relationship data available to
our journalists, we realize this was a
mistake.” Doctoroff went on to note
that Bloomberg terminals are also
equipped with cameras that can see
through the clothing of female
subscribers, but he stressed that
images collected by the cameras are
not shared with ‘those nerds in the
News division.’

I much enjoyed the ChartGirl (http://chartgirl.com/pdf/BLOOMBERG.pdf) take on the Bloomberg story, and as is very often the case, Hilary Sargent got more sense into a chart than I can get into a thousand words. But we are now two days into the story, and already I note the appearance of stories saying we are giving Bloomberg too hard a time, that this could have happened anywhere, and that using online services is courting insecurity so we really should not be so very surprized. I am sorry, but this part of the development loses me completely. Is there any difference between Bloomberg allowing its news staff to access customer sign-on and usage data and News Corp tolerating a culture of news snooping that led to widespread phone-hacking? In principle, No. In degree, there may be differences, but if you aspire to be a trusted service provider then you simply cannot allow this to go on. I have no doubt that Thomson Reuters have spent the day checking their security, and Dow Jones have been explaining their policies at length. But neither so far has been revealed in the Bloomberg light, and it may say something about the cultures of these various players that this is the case.

The principle at stake here was taught me by the head of a London law practice in 1981. He was an early Eurolex user when I was running that early online service for lawyers, and he burst into my office at 8 am one morning bearing yards of printout. “Have you been watching the questions my staff have been asking”, he demanded, and when I said No, and explained we had confidentiality undertakings in our employment contracts, he calmed down and explained that the questions and search routines asked by his staff indicated exactly how he was going to defend a client insurer resisting a claim for damages to the wonderfully fragile legs of a famous actress who had fallen over at the film studios. As he departed he said “What I put into your machine is mine, and when and how I use it is mine also. You can use it, in anonymized form, to improve the service, but beyond that you may not go”.

It seems to me an important principle. As we as a society prepare to defend ownership of our supermarket bills, protect our phone usage from all comers, dream of building ePassports and eWallets to repatriate our own information to us, so that, if we wish, we can sell it to the highest bidder, we shall all of us call upon such principles, invoking them as property laws in our increasingly user-centric networked society. So how come that Bloomberg got things so shockingly wrong? Bloomberg, that secret cavern of a private company, whose whole culture is omerta and whose staff are sworn to secrecy beyond mortality? It comes down to an identifiable trait in private companies. It is about an omniscient esprit de corps. It reflects a certain arrogance that says that if you have grown fast enough and with enough certainty then you can make your own rules. In the pre BusinessWeek days Bloomberg was renowned for never buying anything, but instead for emulating what it wanted by “doing it again – better”. This admirable and industrial culture clearly also has a downside. It breeds people who can walk on water where confidentiality is concerned. The result will perhaps be a sobering ducking.

And hopefully the shock of cold water will touch the rest of the industry as well. Often, even in the financial services sector, users will want to put their content together to create a resource that the market needs. DataMonitor as a service combining anonymized information from banks and hedge funds on shorting contracts and equity leasing is a case in point. But it does not just indicate data that could be used to help create better markets. It comprises data that belonged to the traders and was theirs to sell, regardless of the ownership of terminals or networks which created that data. Unless we adhere to this idea we shall not have a networked society in any real sense, since all players will feel obligated to work one on one to prevent the data leakage.

We got this right 30 years ago: we cannot afford to sell the pass now, as we move into the Age of data analytics and the semantic web.


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  1. The Bloomberg Scandal: Omniscience and Omerta | BIIA.com on May 18, 2013 22:05

    […] BIIA’s Chairman David Worlock wrote a commentary on the scandal.  He examines the Bloomberg case and discusses the principles at stake. It makes interesting reading:  https://www.davidworlock.com/2013/05/omniscience-and-omerta/ […]