In October 2014, on a stage in San Francisco in front of a live audience, Katie Couric asked Mike Bloomberg whether he had ever “sexted on Snapchat.” The former New York City mayor, speaking alongside Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit, joked that he “couldn’t answer the question.” But the question prompted Bloomberg to describe his views on data collection, and a personal “Richard Nixon lesson” about record-keeping.
What followed was a lighthearted discussion of digital privacy, in which Bloomberg, now a candidate in the Democratic presidential race, praised the National Security Agency and said he doesn’t have a problem with apps selling users’ personal data, as long as consumers understand what is happening.
“Look, if you don’t want it to be in the public domain, don’t take that picture, don’t write it down. In this day and age, you’ve got to be pretty naive to believe that the NSA isn’t listening to everything and reading every email,” Bloomberg said. “And incidentally, given how dangerous the world is, we should hope they are, because this is really serious, what’s going on in the world.”
Bloomberg’s comments in 2014 came more than a year after the first disclosures of documents by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, but before a federal appeals court ruled that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records was illegal. Bloomberg did not describe any specific NSA program or form of data collection in detail, but the lighthearted conversation contains insights into his views on digital privacy.
Bloomberg mentioned Snowden by name, saying that because hackers or whistleblowers can obtain and leak records, he joked that he has a rule against keeping records. “And when you write something, you take a picture and somebody leaks it,” Bloomberg said. “How many times does that have to happen before you realize it’s gonna happen again and it could happen to you? And so whether it’s Snowden or some hacker or something, it’s what I call the Richard Nixon lesson: Don’t record it.”
“I think we are trading our privacy and personal freedoms for convenience and pleasure,” Bloomberg continued, “We always worry about the NSA — I hate to come back to them — knowing what we’re doing. Everything you’re doing with every app is recorded, and those companies try to sell that information and profit from it, and then they say ‘Oh, isn’t it terrible that the NSA has been looking at you.’ Come on. They’re doing the same thing themselves. The NSA at least can say, ‘We’re doing it to try to save everybody’s lives.’ The other, they’re doing it because they want to make money. I don’t have a problem with it, but I think you should understand what’s happening.”
The Bloomberg campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent days, Bloomberg has come under fire for his dramatic expansion of the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy. In audio unearthed from a 2015 speech, Bloomberg can be heard saying that “95 percent” of “murders, murderers, and murder victims” were young male minorities, saying, “You can just take the description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops.” He later tweeted that he apologized for “taking too long to understand” the impact of the policy and misleadingly said that he “cut it back” by 95 percent.
Bloomberg’s record on issues of civil liberties and surveillance is also coming under criticism. Bloomberg was elected mayor shortly after the September 11 attacks, and under his administration, New York City became a testing ground for surveillance and predictive policing technology in the name of counterterrorism. In the course of a few years, for example, the NYPD built a network of 3,000 smart surveillance cameras around downtown and midtown Manhattan — informally known as the “Ring of Steel,” which could reportedly detect dropped bags within minutes.
In 2007, during a visit to London — a city also known for ubiquitous surveillance cameras — Bloomberg said, “In this day and age, if you think that cameras aren’t watching you all the time, you are very naive. … We live in a dangerous world, and people want to have security cameras.”
During Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure, the NYPD used undercover informants to spy on a number of activist groups, including Occupy Wall Street. Most infamously, the NYPD ran a yearslong surveillance program of Muslims in the greater NYC area that involved undercover informants and other types of surveillance. A Pulitzer prize-winning series by the Associated Press revealed that the NYPD’s Intelligence Division not only monitored numerous mosques, it also had a “Demographics Unit” that mapped “ancestries of interest.”
During his last year in office, Bloomberg even went so far as to suggest that American laws and interpretation of the Constitution had to change to accommodate counterterrorism. Following the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, and the revelation that the bombers may have intended to strike New York City’s Times Square as well, Bloomberg gave a press conference where he advocated for a shift away from privacy concerns.
“The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry,” Bloomberg said. “But we live in a complex world where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.”