See for yourself what Bloomberg’s terminal contract says about spying on customers

May 14, 2013
May 14, 2013

Bloomberg’s standard contract for its terminals gives the company the right to monitor customer usage “solely for operational reasons,” according to several of those customers and a copy of a contract obtained by Quartz.

So, first of all, here’s the contract.

It’s from the city of Oceanside, California, which has subscribed to a Bloomberg terminal since 2001 in order to manage its investments. The city recently renewed its contract at a rate of $24,000 a year, plus some fees and taxes.

The contract should help shed light on whether Bloomberg faces any legal risks following the revelation that, until April, all of its journalists could view data about how and when customers used their terminals. Bloomberg executives have called that access a “mistake” and “inexcusable,” and the company has hired outside lawyers to advise it on handling the fallout.

Oceanside’s contract with Bloomberg was written and signed in 2001; it has been renewed every two years, and remains in effect. The city posted the contract online. The passages in it that pertain to surveillance haven’t changed in more recent contracts drawn up for terminal subscribers, according to people who have signed them. Some Bloomberg customers, like large banks, undoubtedly sign much more complex contracts than Oceanside’s.

We aren’t lawyers, and won’t pretend to be. But there are two passages in Oceanside’s contract that seem to permit Bloomberg to monitor usage of the terminal. However, both include important caveats:

  • “Lessee acknowledges and understands that Lessor may monitor, solely for operational reasons, Lessee’s general use of the Services.” (The lessee, in this case, is Oceanside, and the lessor is Bloomberg.)
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  • “Lessor reserves the right to audit and monitor (whether physically or electronically) (i) the requests of Lessee for the Information, the Exchange Data, and Additional Information and (ii) the number of Authorized Computers enabled to access the Information, Exchange Data and Additional Information.”
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What qualifies as “operational reasons”? And what does “audit and monitor” mean? The contract doesn’t say. A Bloomberg spokeswoman declined to comment.

Bloomberg reporters had access to the last time any customer logged in, the number of times customers used particular functions on the terminal, and transcripts of chats with customer service. Current and former Bloomberg journalists say the information aided reporting there, but no one has pointed us to a specific article that was published based on the terminal usage data. Instead, it seems to have guided further reporting. Data for some famous clients was also accessed simply for amusement.

It’s also worth noting that access has only been revoked for Bloomberg’s 2,400 or so journalists. The rest of the 15,000-person company can still view the data, which is made available for customer service and sales efforts. And as we’ve previously reported, Bloomberg employees have been told the company keeps a record of every action taken by every terminal user.

Terminal customers large and small have complained about the reporter access, but none has publicly dropped their subscription. Goldman Sachs, which lodged the complaint that led to reporter access being cut off, is said to be working on a private messaging system that would reduce its reliance on communicating through its Bloomberg terminals. Some government agencies, meanwhile, have voiced mostly tepid concern that their employees may have been monitored.

The Bank of England today offered the strongest statement by a regulatory body, calling the terminal snooping “reprehensible.” Agencies and firms in Europe, where privacy laws are generally stricter than in the United States, may pose the greatest threat to Bloomberg’s efforts to contain the controversy.

If you have anything to contribute to our reporting, please feel free to get in touch.

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