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6 big unanswered questions in the Bloomberg spying case

May 14, 2013: 10:49 AM ET

Bloomberg scandal may cause "grey dotting" on Wall Street to go mainstream.

terminalFORTUNE -- There's a new name for Bloomberg on Wall Street: Big Brother.

Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff and editor-in-chief Matt Winkler rushed out responses over the weekend and early Monday morning to the spying scandal at the media empire. But after a weekend and a day of media probes into how much client spying was tolerated by reporters at Bloomberg, there were still a number of unanswered questions. Here's a run-down of some the obvious, burning questions that we still haven't gotten to the bottom of in the Bloomberg client bamboozle:

Will Bloomberg rethink its privacy policies?

If you work on Wall Street and you are a privacy nut, which you know you are because, you know, you work on Wall Street, it turns out there's way more personal information on the Bloomberg machine than you would want. For instance, around 2 p.m. on Monday afternoon, legendary hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller was on his Bloomberg terminal. His e-mail is displayed for all other users to see, and, according to Bloomberg, he goes by Stan.

MORE: Private equity firms concerned about Bloomberg 'snoop'

Michael Corbat, the CEO of Citigroup (C), was not on his Bloomberg. But Bank of America (BAC) CEO Brian Moynihan was, though he hadn't touched a key for the past 15 minutes. Jefferies CEO Richard Handler was on his Bloomberg and typing away.

Among hedge fund managers, David Einhorn was in, but Dan Loeb was out, at least as far as their terminals were concerned. Bill Ackman was in his office, it seemed, but had stepped away from his Bloomberg. When I started looking, Leon Cooperman was logged on, but not using his machine. By 2:30, he was surfing his Bloomberg again.

Tim Wildenberg, who is the head of electronic trading for Citigroup in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, was not logged into his terminal, but he was using a Bloomberg mobile application at the time, probably because in London, where he works, it was after-hours.

And you can search by firm or types of people. At private equity firm Blackstone (BX), well known strategist Byron Wein and financier Bennett Goodman were in. Jonathan Gray, who heads up the firm's real estate division and many think will someday run the firm, was out. I could also see who was and wasn't using their Bloomberg terminals among Goldman Sachs (GS) managing directors and Harvard MBAs.

And that's information readily available to everyone and still is. It's not something you had to be a Bloomberg reporter or know some obscure function to find out. The information is displayed in color dots -- green is in and red is out -- next to a user's e-mail address on the personal bio pages.

It's part of Bloomberg's messaging function, which is widely used on Wall Street, and it's the kind of tracking info that's common these days. Facebook and other social networks will tell you who else is online. But none of those things is as closely tied to buying and selling stocks and bonds, and moving money, as Bloomberg. And Facebook (FB), too, has had to rethink and apologize for its privacy policies numerous times.

Will "grey dotters" finally become socially acceptable?

There is a way to opt out. Bloomberg users can choose to keep their status on private, which gives them a grey dot on their Bloomberg bio page. PIMCO-ites, apparently, like to keep their Bloomberg usage to themselves. Bill Gross and Mohamed El-Erian both have grey dots next to their e-mails. Blackrock CEO Larry Fink is also a so-called grey dotter. But most people don't, in part because it's not socially acceptable on Wall Street. "We make fun of grey dotters," says one hedge fund manager. "They think they are big shots. Who cares if you are in or out?"

But you could imagine instances when it could matter. Bond traders, for instance, might be able to glean some edge knowing that Simon Potter, who heads up the buying and selling for the Federal Reserve, is in his office and at his terminal. Alas, Bloomberg doesn't have any information on the status of Potter, either because he doesn't have his own machine, or someone there thought better of providing that information to the whole world. But I was able to see that New York Fed chairman William Dudley was out. And Richard Fisher of Dallas was in but not currently using his terminal. Atlanta's Dennis Lockhart, and one of the richest top executives of the Fed, however, is a grey dotter.

MORE: Should Bloomberg be afraid of Twitter?

Go ahead and scoff, but now that you know how Bloomberg uses your status information and that every other reporter and now Bloomberg novice knows about it, you Wall Streeters might decide to become grey dotters, too.

How much more info did Bloomberg reporters have access to than the rest of us?

But just because you put up the grey dot doesn't mean that Bloomberg reporters weren't able to track your usage. A Bloomberg spokesperson declined to comment on this point. Doctoroff and Winkler have tried to explain it away, but it's not clear how much info Bloomberg reporters had access to. They say the special access was cut off last month.

Bloomberg has confirmed that its reporters had access to a log-on history. Beyond that it's not clear. Winkler said the reports could only see aggregate user data, "akin to being able to see how many times someone used Microsoft Word vs. Excel." But other ex-Bloomberg reporters have said that you could type in a specific person and see the types of things they were looking at. So that doesn't sound like aggregate data. And what exactly is the Bloomberg terminal equivalent of Word and Excel? Some reports have said that Bloomberg reporters were able to tell who read their stories. That seems like detailed snooping.

Will banks sue Bloomberg?

The revelation that Bloomberg reporters were spying on clients came to light after complaints from Goldman. But now it appears, according to latest reporting from the New York Times, that pretty much every big bank has had some beef with Bloomberg. All of a sudden that unexplained leak makes sense. Remember being stumped by who a "source with knowledge of the bank's activities" was? Well that source was your Bloomberg terminal.

And while that sounds damaging, it's not clear the banks would have a very good case against Bloomberg. Fortune has a Bloomberg terminal. And it looks like the contract we signed with Bloomberg, which appears to be the generic one used by the company, gives its employees the right to spy on us in two places. In one place, the contract states, "Lessee [Fortune] acknowledges and understand that Lessor [Bloomberg] may monitor, solely for operational reasons, Lessee's general use of the Service." One could interpret that to mean Bloomberg could only use the information to make sure the unit was operating properly. But Bloomberg could argue that the statement referred to anything that improved its users' "operational" experience. And if a particularly embarrassing story about you improved other users' experience that day, then Bloomberg seems to be covered.

MORE: Damn Excel! How the most important software program in the history of the world is ruining civilization

Fortune's contract was signed back in 2003. Reportedly some banks said that their contracts seem to protect the users' confidentiality. But that's not in our contract. So either Bloomberg has updated its contract, or your lawyers are better than our lawyers.

Will clients flee Bloomberg?

So the general wisdom is that Bloomberg won't lose many of its 315,000 customers from this spying scandal. But that seems to assume that everyone on Wall Street does the same job.

Traders for example probably couldn't live without a Bloomberg, and its immediate access to news and stock and bond market prices. But for mergers and acquisitions bankers, having a Bloomberg on your desk is more a status thing than something you really need. Bankers may get info from Bloomberg, but most of the analytics they run on deals happen on Excel spreadsheets. M&A guys are also probably the most paranoid about being tracked. A prominent banker in a particular industry might not want others to know he is in the office on Sunday or especially a Monday of a long weekend. (Being in the office on a holiday weekend is a telltale sign of a deal.) And remember this comes at a time when Wall Street is already looking to cut costs. Bloomberg terminals cost about $20,000 each. So while no big bank is going to completely ditch Bloomberg over this or any other breach of data to reporters, that doesn't mean no Bloomberg terminals are going to go dark.

Did Bloomberg reporters spy on other reporters?

So here's the most important question in the whole affair: Did Bloomberg reporters use their snooping function to spy on me, or other reporters? Perhaps. It's possible. The New York Times has seven machines. But a spokesperson says that none of the machines is registered to an individual reporter. They are shared by the newsroom. Bloombergs are more scarce at Dow Jones. The Wall Street Journal reporters don't have access to Bloomberg machines. But Barron's has one. The Financial Times has a bunch of Bloombergs, but a FT spokesperson didn't get back in touch to say how many.

MORE: Bloomberg still has plenty of fans on Wall Street

A few years ago, Fortune's librarian in a moment of paranoia asked a Bloomberg help desk person whether reporters can access the questions she was asking. The answer she got back was vague and always left her wondering. But no one at Fortune remembers a time when a terminal inquiry led to Bloomberg scooping us on something. Bloomberg did beat the WSJ to the JPMorgan London Whale story, even though most people seem to credit the scoop to the WSJ. Although since the WSJ doesn't have Bloombergs, it's hard to connect that to the current snooping scandal.

What's more, Bloomberg has a policy of withholding Bloombergs from media outlets that it considers direct competitors. So if using Bloomberg terminals to scoop other reporters was a strategy, it wasn't a coordinated effort.

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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