Bloomberg LLP’s “Terminal Snooping” is one of many examples demonstrating the difficult online privacy issues that we face today, but the scandal may be particularly useful for anticipating what’s to come in the age of Big Data.
The dispute between the financial news company and some of its Wall Street clients highlights a core conflict in the Internet economy: many companies consider the information they collect as a key asset, while their customers consider it to be private. While many clients see the mining of usage data for news scoops as a grievous breach of privacy, Bloomberg’s actions were less an isolated intrusion and more a reflection of the company’s position at the forefront of a broad expansion in information collection.
“A mantra of CEOs throughout the media industry these days is more data about customers, more readily available throughout the company,” writes Quartz‘s Zachary M. Seward in an article delving into Bloomberg’s “omniscience.” Seward also highlights the company’s reputation for influencing business trends. “Bloomberg was hardly the first company to use open-plan offices, collect loads of data about its customers, and make that information available across the organization, but it popularized those practices and obviously found great success in them,” he writes.
The Guardian‘s Heidi Moore goes a step further, pointing out that Wall Street critics are denouncing Bloomberg for practices much like those from which they profit. “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,” she observes. In a Wall Street Journal article William Launder and Christopher S. Stewart offer further exploration of the delicate balance that Bloomberg must strike if the company wants to sell more financial services while also maintaining its integrity as a news outlet.
Moore also makes an important connection to the constant streams of personal data collected by other platforms:
Yet we know, on some level, that our privacy is an illusion. Facebook collects your searches, as you tap in the names of everyone from frenemies to exes; Google tracks your YouTube viewing to trace every cat video that crosses your screen; when you give your zip code to a cashier, you’re actually giving his company the path to your home address and personal mailbox. Your phone calls are at the disposal of the federal government as are your emails.
The big picture
Forbes‘ Jeff Bercovici draws a similar comparison, calling Bloomberg, “in effect, the world’s most elite social network” and predicting that the recent incident won’t do much long-term damage. “Think about how Facebook has managed to endure one privacy snafu after another while maintaining quarter upon quarter of user growth and you’ll realize how unlikely it is that a social network with much higher lock-in value will face mass defections.”
Just as Bloomberg’s clients assumed that access to their information was more restricted than it was, the Internet as a whole isn’t as private as many think. Moore calls that ignorance a “good thing” in her Guardian piece, but on the Huffington Post business executive Navin Nagiah describes how companies’ vast stores of personal data can give them immense power and significantly impact our lives. “At a fundamental level, these companies are powerful because they have information about you,” he writes. “Your background, your likes, your conversations, your actions, your location, your interests, your friends, your travel schedule, your profession, your hobbies, your kids.” Just as Wall Street firms are wise to be wary of Bloomberg’s extensive data trove, consumers should be aware of the many platforms that may be collecting and utilizing similarly sensitive—and valuable—personal information.
Recommended reading: The Wall Street Journal’s in-depth, “What They Know” investigative series about online privacy provides substantial information into this issue and how it affects you.
Top left: Bloomberg LLP’s corporate headquarters, NYC. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.