Bloomberg’s Billions: How the Candidate Built an Empire of Influence

By Alexander Burns and Nicholas Kulish


Graphics by Lazaro Gamio and Karl Russell


In the fall of 2018, Emily’s List had a dilemma. With congressional elections approaching and the Supreme Court confirmation battle over Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh underway, the Democratic women’s group was hosting a major fund-raising luncheon in New York. Among the scheduled headline speakers was Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor, who had donated nearly $6 million to Emily’s List over the years.

Days before the event, Mr. Bloomberg made blunt comments in an interview with The New York Times, expressing skepticism about the #MeToo movement and questioning sexual misconduct allegations against Charlie Rose, the disgraced news anchor. Senior Emily’s List officials seriously debated withdrawing Mr. Bloomberg’s invitation, according to three people familiar with the deliberations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In the end, the group concluded it could not risk alienating Mr. Bloomberg. And when he addressed the luncheon on Sept. 24 — before an audience dotted with women clad in black, to show solidarity with Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault — Mr. Bloomberg demonstrated why.

“I will be putting more money into supporting women candidates this cycle than any individual ever has before,” he declared.

It was not an idle pledge: Mr. Bloomberg spent more than $100 million helping Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. Of the 21 newly elected lawmakers he supported with his personal super PAC, all but six were women.

The decision by Emily’s List, to mute its misgivings and embrace Mr. Bloomberg as a mighty ally, foreshadowed the choice Mr. Bloomberg is now asking Democrats to make by anointing him their presidential nominee.



Michael R. Bloomberg speaking about gun violence at an event in December, days after announcing his presidential bid.Chet Strange for The New York Times


There are, after all, numerous dimensions to Mr. Bloomberg’s persona and record that give Democrats pause. A former Republican who joined the Democratic Party in 2018, Mr. Bloomberg has long mingled support for progressive causes with more conservative positions on law enforcement, business regulation and school choice. He has often given voice to views that liberals find troubling: Over the past week, Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign was on the defensive over past recordings that showed him linking the financial crisis to the end of discriminatory “redlining” practices in mortgage lending, and defending physically aggressive policing tactics as a deterrent against crime.

Yet in a primary campaign defined by Democrats’ hunger to defeat President Trump, Mr. Bloomberg is also offering himself up as a person singularly equipped to do so — a figure of unique standing and resources, with a powerful set of alliances and a fearsome political machine to draw on. His political rise has become a test of the impact one man’s wealth can have when he applies it to the political system with driving sophistication.

In less than three months as a candidate, Mr. Bloomberg has poured more than $400 million, and rapidly counting, into the campaign. But that figure pales in comparison with what he spent in prior years, positioning himself as a national leader with presidential ambitions.


This circle represents the $401 million that Mr. Bloomberg has spent on his 2020 campaign so far.

Here’s how it compares with his political and philanthropic spending in the years leading up to his presidential campaign.​   




Each of these circles represents a group or individual Mr. Bloomberg has given money to.




The bulk of that giving has been in the United States, but he has also given millions to organizations abroad.



Even Mr. Bloomberg’s disclosed philanthropic spending far outweighs his political spending. Some of his largest charitable giving has been for public health.




Sources: Foundation Directory Online, nozasearch.com, Internal Revenue Service filings, Federal Election Commission, state disclosure databases, Center for Responsive Politics. | Note: Some of the biggest beneficiaries of his giving like Everytown for Gun Safety and Johns Hopkins University are not represented in full. Charitable data is from 2006 to 2018. Political data is from 1977 to 2019.


A Times examination of Mr. Bloomberg’s philanthropic and political spending in the years leading up to his presidential bid illustrates how he developed a national infrastructure of influence, image-making and unspoken suasion that has helped transform a former Republican mayor of New York City into a plausible contender for the Democratic nomination. If anything, his claim — and his support among anxious moderates — has grown stronger with the ascent of the “democratic socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders in early voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Since leaving City Hall at the end of 2013, Mr. Bloomberg has become the single most important political donor to the Democratic Party and its causes. His personal fortune, built on a financial information and news company, is estimated at over $60 billion. It fuels an advocacy network that has directed policy in dozens of states and cities; mobilized movements to take on gun violence and climate change; rewritten election laws and health regulations; and elected scores of politicians to offices as modest as the school board and as lofty as the Senate.

“Clearly, over the last several elections, there has not been a more important donor to the Democratic Party than Michael Bloomberg,” said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, who once chaired the Democratic National Committee. “He has led on guns. He has led on climate change. He has been involved in all these races.”

In all, Mr. Bloomberg has spent at least $10 billion on his charitable and political pursuits. The vast majority has gone to philanthropy, for causes that reflect his personal interests and passions, including $3.3 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University.

But The Times’s examination — based on a review of years of campaign and nonprofit tax filings, as well as interviews with more than 50 people who have benefited from his support — illustrates how deeply that philanthropy is entwined with Mr. Bloomberg’s political preoccupations. In fact, in 2019, the year he declared his presidential candidacy, Mr. Bloomberg’s charitable giving soared to $3.3 billion — more than in the previous five years combined. His campaign disclosed that total in response to inquiries by The Times, but the donations were not itemized and most of it does not fall under public disclosure requirements.

Mr. Bloomberg has probably spent more from his personal fortune on his presidential campaign than any politician in American history. And while there have been political megadonors like the casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, philanthropic giants like Bill Gates and self-funded candidates like Ross Perot, never before has one presidential hopeful combined the influence and reach of all three.


Note: Figures for Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Steyer are based on amounts reported to the Federal Election Commission through Dec. 31, 2019, and Advertising Analytics data through Jan. 31, 2020. The share of their spending since Jan. 1 was estimated based on their public advertising and past spending patterns.·Sources: Center for Responsive Politics; Federal Election Commission; Advertising Analytics


It is not simply good will that Mr. Bloomberg has built. His political and philanthropic spending has also secured the allegiance or cooperation of powerful institutions and leaders within the Democratic Party who might take issue with parts of his record were they not so reliant on his largess.

In interviews with The Times, no one described being threatened or coerced by Mr. Bloomberg or his money. But many said his wealth was an inescapable consideration — a gravitational force powerful enough to make coercion unnecessary.

“They aren’t going to criticize him in his 2020 run because they don’t want to jeopardize receiving financial support from him in the future,” said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at the good-government group Common Cause.

That chilling effect was apparent in 2015 to researchers at the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group, when they turned in a report on anti-Muslim bias in the United States.

Their draft included a chapter of more than 4,000 words about New York City police surveillance of Muslim communities; Mr. Bloomberg was mentioned by name eight times in the chapter, which was reviewed by The Times.


Mr. Bloomberg discussing policing in 2012, when he was mayor of New York.Justin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency


When the report was published a few weeks later, the chapter was gone. So was any mention of Mr. Bloomberg’s name.

Yasmine Taeb, an author of the report, said in an interview that the authors had been instructed to make drastic revisions or remove the chapter, and opted to do the latter rather than “whitewash the N.Y.P.D.’s wrongdoings.” She said she found it “disconcerting” to be asked to remove the chapter “because of how it was going to be perceived by Mayor Bloomberg.”

Other officials at the center disputed that account, arguing that there had been substantive reasons to revise or remove a section on police surveillance in New York from a report commissioned to examine right-wing groups targeting Muslims with explicit bigotry and conspiracy theories.

“Any and all edits to this report were done solely based on editorial and policy considerations,” said a spokeswoman, Daniella Gibbs Léger. The center, she added, had produced other content addressing policing in New York, including a “critical, hard-hitting video” on department policies under Mr. Bloomberg. A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg said his team was unaware of any dispute at the think tank.

But at least one senior official wrote at the time that there would be a “strong reaction from Bloomberg world if we release the report as written,” according to an email reviewed by The Times. And three people with direct knowledge of the situation said Mr. Bloomberg was a factor.

Alienating him might not have been a cost-free proposition. When the report came out, he had already given the organization three grants worth nearly $1.5 million, and in 2017 he contributed $400,000 more, according to Ms. Léger and the center’s limited public disclosure of its donors.

Ms. Taeb, who left the center after the report was published, recently entered politics in Virginia. Now a member of the Democratic National Committee, she said she received a minute-long voice mail from Mr. Bloomberg in December.

“He said he was calling to introduce himself as a courtesy and wanted to sit down with me to tell me why he’s running and why he has a chance,” Ms. Taeb said, “and what he’s done with the Democratic Party.”

The Philanthropy Flood

Early in his second term as mayor, Mr. Bloomberg bought a six-story Beaux-Arts mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and outfitted it as part charity, part governance laboratory. It has become the hub of his empire — headquarters of Bloomberg Philanthropies and until recently the seat of his political operation.

It was during his 12 years at City Hall that Mr. Bloomberg wrote the playbook for propping up allies and co-opting opponents with a mix of political and charitable giving. Even as he spent $268 million on his three campaigns and made $23 million in campaign contributions to others, his philanthropy gave away $2.8 billion, much of it to civic and cultural groups around New York.



His philanthropy actually comprises three separate streams of money. But only one of them, the Bloomberg Family Foundation, is publicly accounted for. The Times’s examination found billions of dollars in donations, under the Bloomberg Philanthropies umbrella, that had not been previously disclosed or itemized — corporate giving by his company, Bloomberg L.P., and from his personal checkbook.

In all, by his own accounting, Mr. Bloomberg has given away nearly $9.5 billion since 1997, at an annual rate that has increased more than a hundredfold. In 2018, the year before he announced for president, he spent nearly $770 million. Last year’s $3.3 billion figure probably included a $1.8 billion donation to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, announced in November 2018. Even without it, his charitable giving roughly doubled.

His spending on electoral politics has also steadily increased, from about $11 million in 2013, his final year as mayor, to the more than $100 million during the 2018 midterms.

All of those funds flow not just from Bloomberg Philanthropies and Mr. Bloomberg’s super PAC, Independence USA, but through an array of advocacy groups that rely on him for donations in the tens of millions of dollars. A number of them are cornerstones of liberal politics, including the Sierra Club, one of the country’s most influential environmental groups, Planned Parenthood and Everytown for Gun Safety.





The foundation, along with Mr. Bloomberg’s other entities, has become something of a talent stable for people he admires — public officials, business leaders and political strategists, among others. The foundation’s board looks almost like a shadow administration, including luminaries like former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and current or former executives from companies including American Express, Disney and Morgan Stanley.

Much of his charitable giving has been largely detached from politics, focusing on areas like the arts, higher education and global public health. Aides are quick to point out that maternal health programs in Tanzania and motorcycle helmet promotions in Vietnam are not exactly winning Mr. Bloomberg primary votes. The biggest beneficiary of his giving has been Johns Hopkins.

Yet his domestic philanthropy has also overlapped with his political agenda, tying him closely to powerful progressive interest groups and amassing reservoirs of gratitude, admiration and influence across the country.

His relationship with the Sierra Club is a case in point. While he was still mayor, Mr. Bloomberg began expressing a keen interest in climate change. The Sierra Club had been working for years to block the construction of coal-fired power plants but wanted to go on the offensive, forcing aging plants offline. In the summer of 2011, Mr. Bloomberg stood on a barge on the Potomac River with the group’s executive director, Michael Brune, to announce a $50 million gift to the group’s Beyond Coal initiative, a figure that has since grown to over $100 million.

Separately, Mr. Bloomberg has deployed his political apparatus to advance the same agenda. In 2015, he announced that he would spend more than $10 million running ads against state attorneys general who were litigating against the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate emissions. In 2018, he gave $5 million to the League of Conservation Voters, and partnered with the group to identify targets for his political giving, including elections for an obscure New Mexico panel that regulates energy utilities.

Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser to Mr. Bloomberg, said the former mayor tended to approach his large-scale causes by seeking out trusted partners — political leaders or organizations — and using various parts of his operation to support them.

“When we identify strong, effective leaders, our view is that we should invest in them,” he said.

That model of concentrating political and philanthropic spending has defined Mr. Bloomberg’s approach in other arenas.

A champion of charter schools, Mr. Bloomberg has used his wealth in numerous ways to sway education policy in Louisiana. As mayor, he began giving relatively small donations, several thousand dollars each, to candidates in Louisiana school board races. But that investment sharply increased after a former New York City deputy schools chancellor, John White, became Louisiana’s state education chief in 2012.

Mr. Bloomberg has made more than $5 million in political donations in the state, including $3.6 million to Empower Louisiana, an education-focused political committee chaired by a powerful Republican donor, and also backed Mitch Landrieu, the former Democratic mayor of New Orleans. Over the same period, Mr. Bloomberg gave nearly $15 million to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to promote charter schools, and his foundation gave nearly $3 million to the City of New Orleans. Two former senior aides to Mr. Landrieu are now helping lead Mr. Bloomberg’s political strategy in the South and his national outreach to African-American voters.  

A rally organized by Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group Mr. Bloomberg founded.Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times



Some places have become points of convergence for numerous strands of Mr. Bloomberg’s agenda. In Washington State, he contributed more than $2 million to political committees focused on issues like gun control, carbon pricing, soda taxes and same-sex marriage. At the same time, he showered the City of Seattle with grant money for climate-related policy, and the Bloomberg-funded group Everytown for Gun Safety deployed lawyers there, first to help craft regulations and then to defend them in court.

The city’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, now sits on the steering committee of C40 Cities, an alliance of mayors confronting climate change. Mr. Bloomberg is the head of its board. Even in a city like her own, Ms. Durkan said, Mr. Bloomberg stands out.

“There’s a lot of wealth here, and I see a lot of people who are personally interested, to varying degrees,” she said. “I’ve never seen the Mike Bloomberg package before.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s giving to Johns Hopkins has also intersected with his political advocacy. In Maryland, where the university is among the state’s most prominent institutions, he spent more than a half-million dollars in 2014 seeking to elect a governor supportive of gun control. The Bloomberg name, politicians say, is well known throughout the state because of the institutions that carry it, most of all the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a professor at the school, said the foundation kept in close touch to monitor the projects it funded, track their attention in the media and connect recipients of Mr. Bloomberg’s money with other people close to the former mayor.

“Sometimes they’ll call us and say, ‘There’s a mayor who is interested in this — can you talk to them?’” said Dr. Sharfstein, who directs the Bloomberg American Health Initiative, built on a $300 million donation from Mr. Bloomberg.

The range and reach of Mr. Bloomberg’s spending, experts say, cannot but play to his advantage in the presidential race.

“The fact that he can call in all these favors, all over the country — a normal person can’t do that,” said Adav Noti, chief of staff at the Campaign Legal Center. “A normal person will never be able to do that.”
Policy, the Bloomberg Way

On a national level, there is arguably no issue more closely associated with Mr. Bloomberg than gun control. Nor does any other issue better capture the tension between his preference for data-driven, incremental, top-down strategy and the surges of ambitious activism that have increasingly defined American politics.

It was a cause he embraced after winning re-election as mayor. On New Year’s Day 2006, Mr. Bloomberg declared in his inaugural address that he saw an urgent duty “to rid our streets of guns, and punish all those who possess and traffic in these instruments of death.”

That April, he convened a Gracie Mansion summit of 15 mayors from across the country, marking the beginning of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which within a few short months included more than 100 civic leaders from 44 states.

Soon enough, Mr. Bloomberg ramped up his spending on politics beyond New York. Frustrated at the flow of firearms from Virginia, a state with lax gun laws, Mr. Bloomberg tried to buoy candidates in the state’s 2011 elections who shared his views.

Then, in 2013, he received a visitor in New York: Mr. McAuliffe, by then a candidate for governor of Virginia. He proposed to Mr. Bloomberg that he make the state a decade-long priority, with an eye toward empowering Democratic supporters of gun regulation.

“I walked out with a multimillion-dollar commitment that day,” Mr. McAuliffe recalled.

Mr. Bloomberg spent more than $3 million in Virginia that year through his super PAC, helping propel Mr. McAuliffe to the governorship and electing a Democratic attorney general supportive of gun control, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. He has plowed millions more into the state since then, culminating last fall with a takeover of the state legislature by Democrats who are now seeking to pass a series of tougher gun laws.

Then, after leaving office in December 2013, Mr. Bloomberg began expanding his advocacy operation. He founded a new group, Everytown for Gun Safety, which has since spent tens of millions of dollars pushing for gun control measures, with considerable success in swing states like Colorado and Nevada.

Incorporated as a nonprofit, Everytown does not need to disclose its donors or most of its expenditures, but officials there say Mr. Bloomberg typically provides roughly one-third of the group’s budget. While officials at Everytown said the group was ultimately independent, it is closely intertwined with Mr. Bloomberg’s political operation.

Everytown is managed directly by one of Mr. Bloomberg’s close lieutenants, John Feinblatt, a former New York deputy mayor whose wedding Mr. Bloomberg officiated in 2011. Numerous people connected to the group said it channeled Mr. Bloomberg’s priorities, including his strong preference for working with both parties.

The organization came into existence through an almost corporate-style merger: Mr. Bloomberg already had a gun control group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, but he needed a grass-roots army to compete with the National Rifle Association. So it joined forces with an existing activist group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, to form Everytown.
Moms Demand Action had sprung up on Facebook after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Volunteers organized into local chapters, held protests and lobbied for legislation. After a year of working long hours for no compensation, many volunteers were running on fumes and well aware their organization needed money.

Mr. Bloomberg promised to infuse the movement with $50 million, bringing his mayors’ group and Moms Demand Action under the Everytown umbrella. According to his spokesman, Mr. Bloomberg has underwritten the gun control movement with a total of $270 million since 2007. But with his backing came a stark shift in culture and a rigid new command structure, one that left some activists feeling they were pawns in matching red T-shirts.

People involved in the group described being forced to communicate exclusively in canned talking points. Kate Ranta, shot twice by her ex-husband in front of her young son, was a member of Everytown’s network of survivors. She was asked to address a rally on the steps of the Capitol, along with her son. Standing beside Nancy Pelosi, then the House minority leader, and Representative John Lewis, she found herself stumbling over the text she had been given.

“Someone from Everytown wrote my speech. It was pushing their legislative agenda versus my authentic voice,” Ms. Ranta said. “I couldn’t say ‘gun control.’ It was moderate messaging — ‘gun safety’ and ‘gun violence prevention.’”

Other members greatly appreciated the new direction from Everytown. “A structure began to be put into place, and we could avail ourselves of the data that was offered so we could speak more intelligently,” said June Rubin, a Moms Demand Action volunteer in New York. “So we’re focused and single-issue and highly recognizable and speaking with one voice, and it’s powerful.”

The policy agenda was to be focused on tightening background checks; more radical ideas like banning assault weapons were off the table. “There were people who were very, very troubled by that,” Ms. Rubin said. “I became very pragmatic.”

More confrontational tactics were also rejected. After the mass shooting last year at a Walmart in El Paso, Tex., other groups organized protests to pressure the retailer to change its policies. But Moms members were discouraged from attending and told not to show any affiliation if they did. One Moms official told volunteers in a closed Facebook group that doing otherwise could “undercut our relations with responsible gun owners whose support we need.”

“Our goal is always to get results, and sometimes that means playing the outside game and sometimes it requires playing the inside game and working with partners who have shown themselves to be amenable to change,” said Maxwell Young, chief of public affairs for Everytown. “We’ve found Walmart to be an ally on gun safety and an example of a leader always willing to engage in productive conversations.”
Mr. Bloomberg also insisted on a strategy of bipartisanship, frustrating activists who saw the Republican Party as unalterably opposed to their goals. In 2016, he spent nearly $12 million to re-elect Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a Republican supportive of background checks but strongly conservative on nearly everything else.

Lisa Boswell, a former Moms volunteer who got involved after the Sandy Hook shooting, said activists in Pennsylvania were ignored. “While the ground volunteers were very much opposed to this idea, the decision was going to be made at a higher level, without taking those views into consideration,” she said.

Mr. Wolfson said that in the wake of Sandy Hook, Mr. Bloomberg felt strongly that Mr. Toomey’s support for background checks represented “an extremely important moment.” Mr. Bloomberg’s view, he said, was that “if you are asking someone to take a strong bipartisan stand in support of an absolute key priority, you want to be supportive of them.”

In 2018, even as Mr. Bloomberg was spending nine figures to defeat congressional Republicans, Everytown backed another Pennsylvania Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, for re-election. A number of local volunteers, who said they had been assured that Everytown had no plans to support Mr. Fitzpatrick, quit to form their own gun control organization.

Former members of Moms Demand Action, who had been cut off from private Facebook groups and blocked by leadership on Twitter, were surprised when they received emails from Mike Bloomberg 2020. Then they learned his campaign had rented the group’s email list, for $3.2 million, two days before he announced his candidacy in November.

At least a half-dozen former Everytown and Moms Demand Action officials have joined the Bloomberg campaign, including senior political and legal strategists and the deputy director of the Survivors Network. Spokespersons for both the Bloomberg camp and Everytown said that they had put up a firewall in the campaign, and that there was no coordination between the two entities.

In his campaign, Mr. Bloomberg has proposed a gun control agenda that goes far beyond Everytown’s, including a ban on assault-style weapons and a national licensing system.

When Mr. Bloomberg spent roughly $10 million on a Super Bowl commercial this month, he chose to focus his 60-second spot entirely on gun control. The emotional ad featured Calandrian Simpson-Kemp, whose son had been shot and killed, and who previously appeared in videos for Everytown, wearing the distinctive red Moms Demand Action T-shirt.

Powerful Alliances

In the presidential race, Mr. Bloomberg has activated his sprawling network of allies to great effect — drawing on his foundation and its beneficiaries to build a campaign staff, and calling on politicians he has supported in the past for their endorsements.

It is that network, as much as the raw force of his campaign spending, that has propelled Mr. Bloomberg into contention in the Democratic race. He is not the only candidate spending hundreds of millions of dollars promoting himself: Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund investor, has spent at least $243 million of his fortune on the race but has struggled to win support.

Mr. Bloomberg’s trajectory has been different. He has climbed to the top rank of contenders, even catching up to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in some national polls.

Since the start of his campaign, more than 50 employees of Bloomberg Philanthropies have moved across town to his Times Square campaign headquarters as paid staff members, including the foundation’s chief executive, Patricia E. Harris, a former New York deputy mayor, and James Anderson, previously the foundation’s head of government innovation.

Overnight, Ms. Harris and Mr. Anderson went from providing cities around the country with grants to contacting mayors for support. Dozens of current and former mayors have since endorsed Mr. Bloomberg, including leaders from major cities like Houston, Memphis, Tampa and Washington.

Two prominent Democratic leaders with direct ties to the foundation quickly renounced their support for Mr. Biden after Mr. Bloomberg joined the race. Former Mayor Michael A. Nutter of Philadelphia, a fellow attached to Mr. Bloomberg’s What Works Cities initiative, became a paid adviser to the campaign. Manny Diaz, the former mayor of Miami and a paid board member at Bloomberg Philanthropies, defected from Mr. Biden to Mr. Bloomberg several weeks later.


Mr. Bloomberg speaking this month at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.Hannah Yoon for The New York Times


Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign commercials have featured his crusades against coal, tobacco companies and the N.R.A. And he has continued to dole out money to the party — giving $10 million to a super PAC supporting House Democrats, $5 million to a voting-rights group led by Stacey Abrams, and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic National Committee as well as dozens of state parties. The D.N.C. recently revised its debate-qualification standard to make it possible for someone like Mr. Bloomberg, who does not accept political donations, to participate, drawing accusations of favoritism from other campaigns.

One of the first members of Congress to endorse Mr. Bloomberg was Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida. Elected in 2016 as a champion of gun control, Ms. Murphy said she had worked closely with Everytown on legislation, and said Mr. Bloomberg had shown his political mettle by backing groups like the League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood.

“All of these are organizations that supported and endorsed my campaign in ’16 and ’18,” Ms. Murphy said. “This is a guy who puts his money where his mouth is.”

Mr. Bloomberg has promised to do just that in the general election, spending aggressively to defeat Mr. Trump no matter who the nominee is. But advisers to Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged the scale and focus of his spending would differ, depending on whether he is the Democratic standard-bearer.
“If Mike Bloomberg is the nominee, he will ensure that the Democratic Party has the greatest funding in its history,” Mr. Wolfson said, describing a plan to guarantee “all 50 states have the resources that Democrats need to compete up and down the ballot.”

If Mr. Bloomberg is not nominated, Mr. Wolfson suggested a narrower focus. “If you’re trying to defeat Donald Trump and you’re not on the ballot, you’re going to focus on the battleground states,” he said.

There are places where Mr. Bloomberg’s past spending has left a less helpful mark for his campaign: Pennsylvania may be one of them, since some Democrats there still resent his past support for Mr. Toomey. Teacher unions view Mr. Bloomberg with distrust because of his donations to school-choice groups and his charter-friendly policies as mayor.

But in most places he has ventured as a candidate, Mr. Bloomberg’s many years of largess have helped earn him a warm reception.

During the week of the Iowa caucuses, he toured California with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for whom Mr. Bloomberg spent millions in a 2018 gubernatorial race, and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, a beneficiary of Bloomberg foundation grants. He visited Providence, R.I., to be endorsed by Gov. Gina Raimondo, a moderate Democrat whose election Mr. Bloomberg aided in 2014. And he got an endorsement from Representative Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, for whom Mr. Bloomberg’s super PAC spent more than $2 million in the last midterm elections.

Some of his biggest endorsements have come out of cities that have been focal points for his philanthropy. In the Bay Area, Mr. Bloomberg’s foundation has distributed dozens of grants to museums, dance companies and climate organizations, while his political donations have funded school board candidates and referendums to tax soda and ban e-cigarettes. San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, endorsed Mr. Bloomberg last month, hailing his “ability to beat Trump.”

Mr. Wolfson said no promises had been made to Mr. Bloomberg’s endorsers about what they could expect from him down the line. “I haven’t had a single conversation with anyone where I suggested or implied any future support, nor did anyone ask for it,” he said.

So far, most lawmakers Mr. Bloomberg supported in 2018 have not endorsed him, but in interviews several acknowledged that his status as a patron of the party was weighing on their thinking. Sitting down with members of the centrist New Democrat Coalition on Capitol Hill last month, Mr. Bloomberg was greeted by a sequence of thank-yous from House members he backed in 2018, according to two lawmakers present.

Representative Scott Peters of California, a San Diego Democrat who endorsed Mr. Bloomberg, said he had been struck by the expressions of gratitude from his colleagues when Mr. Bloomberg visited the Hill.

“We know who he is — he’s a successful executive in business, he’s a successful executive in public life as mayor,” Mr. Peters said in an interview, adding, “We often say our checkbook is our values, and it was evident through his philanthropy that he shared my values on issues like gun safety and immigration and climate change.”



Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

An adjustment programme

The IMF undergoes structural reform

Kristalina Georgieva makes her mark




The IMF is familiar with unwelcome edicts. Its job as the world’s lender of last resort often involves demanding reform. But its staff may be discovering the unpleasantness of being on the receiving end.

Kristalina Georgieva, the fund’s boss, is reorganising the institution.

Ms Georgieva took over as the imf’s managing director in October 2019 on a wave of good publicity. As the first boss from an emerging market, she regaled audiences with her own experiences of an imf programme—in the 1990s she saw hyperinflation in Bulgaria wipe out her mother’s savings in a week.

She arrived with a reputation for being able to manage large bureaucracies, having previously been chief executive officer of the World Bank. A few months in, she has managed two senior deputies out. On February 7th she announced that David Lipton, the first deputy managing director, and Carla Grasso, another deputy managing director, would leave at the end of the month.

Mr Lipton’s reputation for diligence and technical expertise meant that the news of his early exit—his term had been due to end in August 2021—was not well received by staffers old and new. A rumour swirled that his departure was a ploy by President Donald Trump’s administration to choose his successor. By convention, America appoints the first deputy managing director.

In fact it seems that Mr Lipton’s departure was Ms Georgieva’s doing. Her predecessor, Christine Lagarde, had been content to be the IMF’s public face while Mr Lipton handled much of the day-to-day management.

Ms Georgieva, though, is a more hands-on manager, making Mr Lipton’s role, as currently defined, redundant. And so he went. Ms Grasso, whose renewed term had started only five days before her departure was announced, is leaving partly because her job is, unusually, one for which Ms Georgieva can pick a successor.

That would allow her to nominate someone to help realise her vision for the fund, which includes doing more to help fragile states and tackling climate change. In her first speech as the fund’s chief, she called for governments to enact domestic reforms that achieve “stronger and more resilient growth”, and for those with remaining fiscal firepower to deploy it.

She has promised to collaborate more with the World Bank, particularly regarding countries that have received the fund’s help. Ms Georgieva may want to remove the impression that theimf cares only about restoring stability to crisis-ridden countries at the expense of jobs and growth.



It is hardly unusual for new bosses to make management changes, including at the fund. It could benefit from a shake-up that flattens its hierarchical management structure.

Its policies could also be improved. Its programmes sometimes crimp growth, such that countries miss its rosy gdp forecasts. Its engagement with fragile states can be lacklustre.

The risk, though, is that Ms Georgieva’s reforms backfire. If she wants the most able staff to work on fragile states, she will have to butter them up. Mr Lipton’s departure means one fewer set of capable hands to help in a crisis. Some fear that without him there will be an increase in “clientitis”—country directors being too soft when demanding reforms.

One near-term challenge is Argentina, the recipient of the fund’s biggest ever loan (see chart).

On February 12th fund officials began talks with the government, which is seeking to restructure its debt.

There are also concerns that Mr Lipton might be replaced by someone less capable. The Trump administration has resisted the idea that Mr Lipton’s job be abolished altogether. It is floating the name of Geoffrey Okamoto, an acting assistant secretary of the Treasury, as a potential replacement. For Ms Georgieva’s strategy to work, she needs someone pliable in the role. But if they are too weak, the institution could eventually suffer.

Ms Georgieva still needs to convince some fund-watchers that she is updating its mission not diluting it. New ambitions require resources—or a sense of which old tasks will be cut to make way for new ones. Structural reforms need not do damage.

But they should be enacted with care.

Will coronavirus change how we live?

What seemed like an age of infinite possibility is starting to look much more fragile

Henry Mance


© AP


You can find anything in Heathrow airport if you walk far enough. Near Terminal 2, past the bus station, under a flyover, you can even find God.

The airport chapel is a windowless stone bunker, located down a flight of stairs. Here, at Monday lunchtime, I joined a dozen airport employees for a Catholic mass. It was a surprisingly tender, surreal service, which ended with a cappella version of “Amazing Grace”.

On the way out, I considered buying a postcard of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers.

Most air passengers see no need for such rituals. For decades, crossing continents hasn’t been an act of faith; it has been a fact of life. Flying seems so simple that even a small delay can lead us to rage on social media. It is so mundane that you can partly do it yourself: check yourself in, put your own labels on your bag, pick your own seat on the plane.

“Don’t tell me this isn’t an age of miracles. Don’t tell me we can’t be everywhere at once,” says George Clooney in the film Up in the Air. Clooney’s character is a company man who dreams of reaching 10m air miles and excels at navigating airport security.

For mere mortals too, travelling has become just a series of hacks. We started by never changing money at the airport (Heathrow’s rates are about 20 per cent from reality) and took it from there. People stopped offering rounds of applause when the plane landed safely, or even expressing wonder at the ability to fly to Hong Kong for a wedding weekend.

And then came coronavirus.

For most of my adult life, “going viral” has been a good thing. Coronavirus has ruined the metaphor. It has reminded us that the world is not as controllable as it appeared. There are risks that cannot be minimised by passing through an all-body scanner and pouring our toiletries into 100ml bottles.

Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress and London’s Book Fair were cancelled, Twitter ordered all its staff to work from home, and the new, unfortunately titled James Bond film No Time to Die was delayed until November. The death toll is not yet comparable even to seasonal flu, but the disruption already goes far wider.

Travellers pull their suitcases while wearing masks in a terminal at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Travellers wearing masks at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv last month © Reuters


I went to Heathrow to see it first-hand. I found the airport eerily empty. “It’s been quiet all month,” said a British Airways attendant, surveying the vast hall of Terminal 5 — a monument to globalisation. BA had cancelled flights to China, Italy and beyond. Other airlines too were reporting a sharp drop in bookings, and a rise in passengers simply not turning up.

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Coronavirus is an epidemic for our times. Perhaps more than any disease in living memory, it chimes with our society’s fears.

The past few years have seen the emergence of doomsday preppers — super-wealthy individuals planning their escape in case of societal breakdown.

Politics has already swung against open borders and global supply chains. In Europe, a sizeable chunk of consumers has stopped flying out of climate guilt.

Our most sacred events — international sports tournaments — have already started to be disrupted, by extreme weather. Two matches at last year’s Rugby World Cup were cancelled due to a typhoon. At January’s Australian Open, a tennis player collapsed after inhaling wildfire smoke. Now Tokyo’s Olympic Games may be delayed.

Modern society is a wrestling match between those, particularly environmentalists, who argue that there are unprecedented risks, and those, such as Steven Pinker, who prefer to focus on the unprecedented opportunities. It’s an age where both human extinction and human immortality are discussed as genuine possibilities. The coming global pandemic could tilt our perception of which is more likely.



At least one in five adults — maybe as many as 60 per cent — will become infected, a Harvard University disease expert, Marc Lipsitch, has estimated. Nearly all of these — perhaps 98 to 99 per cent — will survive. Will humans nonetheless emerge with a new sense of vulnerability? Will we accept that the horizons are not so open after all?

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The defining legacy of most disease outbreaks is their lack of legacy. The 1918 flu pandemic probably killed more people than the first world war — estimates now go above 50m — but is treated as a footnote to the conflict.

For many years, historians didn’t really write about the so-called Spanish flu, except to note that it wasn’t actually Spanish. (Spain, being neutral during the war, may simply have censored news of the outbreak less than some other countries.)}

Epidemics come and go, and have done so for centuries; they can seem too unpredictable for interpretation.

When the Black Death struck, our ancestors saw it as divine punishment for human sinfulness. Inconveniently for this theory, priests themselves were killed in large numbers. So instead of turning sinners to the Church, the plague may have turned people away.There are two ways that disease outbreaks can change us.

The first is through reflection. As anyone who has ever had a cold has realised, illness lends itself to introspection. John Donne was suffering from fever when he wrote his famous ode to co-operation — and possible attack on puritanism — starting “No Man Is an Island”.

Virginia Woolf argued that illness involved “a childish outspokenness . . . things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals”.





The second is structural. The Black Death accelerated the disintegration of English feudalism: so many peasants died that the landlords lost their grip. The first world war accelerated the rise of working women: once they had replaced men in factories, a Rubicon had been crossed. If the 1918 epidemic left an imprint, it was perhaps accelerating the arrival of public healthcare.

Coronavirus has already been claimed by ideologues. Donald Trump said that it justified tighter border controls; Bernie Sanders linked it to free public healthcare. Matt Stoller, a campaigner for corporate regulation, argued that coronavirus marked the end of “affluence politics” — that is, “the politics of not paying attention to what creates wealth in the first place”.

Coronavirus may make us reconsider how many journeys — holidays, work trips, conferences — are actually essential. The threat of terrorism didn’t stop us flying. Since September 11, the number of US air passengers has risen by one-third; global numbers have more than doubled.




But coronavirus, particularly if it recurs sporadically, may prod some business travellers to adopt video conferencing instead of hugely emitting flights.

It may even encourage more men to wash their hands (although my trip to the lavatories at Heathrow was not entirely reassuring in this regard). It may bring overdue changes to China’s live animal markets, where the disease probably spread to humans.

The possibilities go further. Coronavirus — by disrupting our lives and causing painful tragedy — may introduce a new acceptance of unpredictability into our thinking. We are told of the threats from antibiotic resistance, US-China conflict and the breakdown of ecosystems.

Those threats feel distant. How can things be about to go backwards, now that Qantas is proposing a direct flight from London to Sydney, and Tumi sells ballistic nylon wheelie suitcases with electronic tracing? Perceiving humanity’s fragility is tricky in a world of increasing possibilities.

This may help to explain why people in rich countries are less worried by climate change than those in poor countries. According to YouGov, 70 per cent of Indians say that climate change will have a great deal of impact on their lives, compared with fewer than 20 per cent of Britons, Germans and Scandinavians. People in the US and Europe are also far less likely than those in Asia to think that climate change will spark a new world war or the extinction of the human race. 
In the west, affluence is such that we invent our own restraints — Dry January, Meatless Monday and so on. We accept those restraints because they are self-imposed and self-improving. The next step is to accept restraints that are collectively imposed and collectively beneficial.
 
Personal experience of hardship seems to make a significant difference: researchers in Britain have found that people affected by winter floods are more likely to express concern about climate change, take personal action to reduce their energy use, and support emission-cutting policies.
 
Coronavirus is not caused by climate change, but it wreaks the kind of disruption we might face in the future. “This is certainly not the last time that we’re going to have these kinds of disease eruptions if we deny, delude and delay on climate change,” the former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres told Channel 4 News.





Environmental concern plunged during the financial crisis, because the public had more immediate economic concerns. But this time may be different. Coronavirus comes after a series of wake-up calls — the searing European summer of 2018, the Californian and Australian wildfires, the floods everywhere from Britain to Indonesia.

Philip Ziegler, the historian, wrote that after the Black Death, the typical European “lived in a constant anticipation of disaster . . . Perhaps the factor which contributed most towards his demoralisation was his almost total ignorance of the workings of his world.” We are more fortunate: we know what to do to halt climate change, we just have to do it.

Our vulnerability stretches further. A growing group of scientists, technologists and philosophers now argue that humanity faces a non-trivial risk of extinction this century.Culture
The Oxford philosopher Toby Ord came to prominence in 2009, when he pledged to give his salary above £20,000 to charity. His new book, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, analyses the existential risks facing humanity.

He argues that, in the 20th century, we only thought of one — nuclear war. Now there are several, some of them our own doing — climate change, artificial intelligence, biowarfare.

“During the 20th century, my best guess is that we faced around a one-in-a hundred risk of human extinction or the unrecoverable collapse of civilisation,” Ord writes.

“Given everything I know, I put the existential risk at around one in six: Russian roulette.”

One in six is also the chance that The New York Times’ statistical analysis gave Donald Trump of becoming president on the eve of the 2016 election. Ord argues that our current sense of risk — such as when it is safe to cross a road — is insufficient to deal with threats that are so dire they must be minimised; we need a complete rethink.

Coronavirus is an imperfect place to start that reflection: even the worst pandemics, the Black Death and the 1918 influenza, were not paths to extinction. Yet the epidemic could, at the very least, be part of the learning curve. If we can accept cancelled flights, closed schools, postponed sporting fixtures now, perhaps we can accept restraints in the future. If we can rely on international co-operation now, perhaps we can summon the same spirit again.

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A year ago, I would have found the idea of stockpiling food ridiculous. But the concept became normalised in 2019, as the UK government repeatedly threatened a no-deal Brexit. When coronavirus put it back on the agenda again, I realised I was primed.

My stockpiling shop arrived on Monday evening. What was the harm? No one ever regretted buying seven jars of pesto, although ideally the supermarket wouldn’t have already sold out of one of the two possible flavours.

Scanning the kitchen, I realised that, before long, I could be self-isolating at home for 14 days. I thought about how few places I actually needed to be — how much of life can now be conducted digitally. Unlike Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, I couldn’t be everywhere at once and I didn’t need to be.






At Heathrow, those people who were travelling were sanguine about risk and determined to fly. “I don’t like mass hysteria,” said Val, a therapist, who had travelled back from Australia. “The alternative [to not flying] was worse. I was visiting family.”

Roger, an affable 83-year-old who had retired to the south of France, was returning from one of his regular trips to watch his football team, Aston Villa. “My wife says, oh no, it kills people who are old. I said we’re not old — health-wise . . . I’ve had the flu, I’ve had colds, it’ll just be in that range. Why change the habits of a lifetime?”

The airport itself told a different story. It wasn’t just the empty halls. The terminals were covered in adverts featuring an elephant, and slogans such as: “Our carbon footprint. There’s no tiptoeing around it.”

At some point, the habits of a lifetime will change.

At some point, a nudge will be required.

 If the shock of coronavirus disruption isn’t enough for us to recalibrate, what will be?



Henry Mance is the FT’s chief feature writer


Fed decision to go it alone bucks history of collaboration

Policymakers who co-ordinated action in past will introduce virus measures separately

Chris Giles in London, Robin Harding in Tokyo, Martin Arnold in Frankfurt and Brendan Greeley in Washington


Montage - Jerome Powell, Jay Powell chairman of the US Federal Reserve and coronavirus imagery
© FT Montage/Bloomberg


The US Federal Reserve did not tell fellow G7 central banks beforehand that it would launch its first emergency rate cut since the financial crisis, nor did it seek to get them to join in, according to people with knowledge of Tuesday’s discussions.

It was a stark difference to past moments of economic peril, in which the group of leading nations acted in co-ordination.

Other members of the G7 held off on any monetary policy action on Tuesday; instead after a conference call finance ministers issued a bland statement pledging to use “all appropriate policy tools” to address the fallout from coronavirus.

By contrast, as the financial crisis took hold in October 2008 the world’s leading central banks cut interest rates simultaneously in a bid to halt the gathering storm in credit markets. Just two days later, G7 finance ministers pledged “exceptional action” to address the crisis.

According to officials with knowledge of this week’s discussions, the muted response was because coronavirus does not need shock-and-awe tactics but targeted measures depending on the spread of the disease.

That leaves each central bank to consider what action to take — and how bad the economic outlook could get before it does.


Line chart of Central bank policy rates (%) showing Some central banks have more room to cut than others


Japan

The question for the Bank of Japan is whether the yen holds at ¥107. The BoJ’s big worry is that Fed rate cut leads to a weaker dollar, hurting Japan’s exports.

Governor Haruhiko Kuroda has vowed “to provide ample liquidity and ensure stability in financial markets through appropriate market operations and asset purchases”, after which the BoJ bought almost $1bn in equity exchange traded funds, a daily record.

But privately the BoJ concedes doubts about whether the benefits of further action would outweigh the costs.

Kiichi Murashima, chief economist at Citi in Tokyo, said his base case was for increased equity purchases at the next BoJ meeting, but he is “highly sceptical” about the potential for rate cuts, which would hurt already-struggling regional banks.

“At least historically, it has been quite important for Japanese policymakers to be seen to act [with other central banks] in a co-ordinated manner,” said Mr Murashima. “But it is questionable how much weight they actually put on it.”

Financial support — in the form of government subsidies, banking forbearance and a BoJ liquidity facility — is a more likely area of action. Corporate balance sheets are generally in good shape, but the disappearance of Chinese tourists has led to a string of bankruptcies in recent weeks. The government is seeking ways to tide vulnerable companies over.

Prime minister Shinzo Abe is trying to launch a targeted fiscal stimulus, promising wage subsidies, but the crisis has exposed the contradictions in his fiscal policy. The economy was already reeling from October’s consumption tax rise but reversing that is politically difficult.

Line chart of Central bank assets as a % of GDP showing Some central banks have more capacity for asset purchases than others

The eurozone

Given the debate about the downsides of negative rates in Europe, a cut from the European Central Bank is unlikely to be Christine Lagarde’s preferred option.

The ECB could beef up its cheap loans to banks, or encourage banks to be lenient with companies that run into trouble. Italian bank UniCredit has already introduced similar measures. The ECB could also join with other central banks to launch a co-ordinated liquidity injection into the banking system, if necessary.

“The main policy issue in a pandemic is to avoid liquidity squeezes leading to SME bankruptcies, ie. targeted liquidity measures to circumvent the negative growth chain reaction of containment, confidence, credit quality, bank capital constraints and defaults, that is in play now,” said Lena Komileva, chief economist at G+ Economics.

The EU is prepared to relax its fiscal rules to counteract the economic impact of the coronavirus, but only temporarily, Mário Centeno, head of the eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, said on Wednesday. The European Commission last week earmarked €232m to help contain the disease and Italy has announced a €3.6bn stimulus package while seeking permission to widen its deficit.

But ECB officials are pushing for more support from governments, particularly from countries like Germany, which is in a healthy fiscal position.

“Co-ordination is basically a code word for putting pressure on Germany to use its budget surplus to do more,” said one member of the ECB’s governing council.

The Fed’s rate cut puts pressure on other central banks to follow suit by weakening the dollar, the council member said: “Where co-operation gets difficult is when you have central banks competing to devalue their currencies. The recent euro appreciation has a tightening effect on the economy.”

Line chart of 10-year government bond yields (%) showing Governments' financing costs have fallen sharply

The UK

Even with rates close to all-time lows, outgoing governor Mark Carney believes the Bank of England has firepower equivalent to a 2.5 percentage point rate cut if it uses more quantitative easing, forward guidance and cheap loans to banks.

Andrew Bailey, incoming BoE governor, said on Wednesday it was likely the central bank and UK government would soon need to provide bridging finance to small companies.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak will announce the UK’s fiscal response to coronavirus in the Budget next week. With a deficit of less than 2 per cent of national income the UK faces no specific fiscal constraints, although the government is considering targeted relief for affected households and companies rather than a broader stimulus.

UK banks are better capitalised than during the 2008 financial crisis; ministers have urged them to show tolerance towards companies which face temporary cash flow difficulties.

Bar chart of General government net debt as a % of GDP (2020) showing Indebtedness varies wildly across major developed economies


The US

There is little appetite among Fed policymakers for negative rates. That leaves the Fed close to what it now calls the “effective lower bound”: zero. Mr Powell has called this the “pre-eminent monetary policy challenge of our time”.

The Fed will use both asset purchases and forward guidance aggressively if it has to, but Mr Powell has ruled out anything beyond rate cuts for now. He was hesitant to say the tools he had would work at all.

Congress and the White House on Wednesday agreed an $8bn appropriation for public health measures. Donald Trump has proposed a one-year payroll tax cut, while members of the US Chamber of Commerce have suggested expanding a business loan programme for disasters, but neither are a formal policy proposal.

On Tuesday Mr Powell said: “It’s possible there will be some more formal considered co-ordination as we move forward.”

But for the moment, he warned, “it’s up to individual countries, individual fiscal policies and individual central banks to do what they’re going to do”.

The Biometric Threat

As with so many other convenient technologies, the world is underestimating the risks associated with biometric identification systems. India has learned about those risks the hard way – and should serve as a cautionary tale to the governments and corporations seeking to expand the use of these technologies.

Jayati Ghosh

ghosh18_dem10Getty Images_biometricfingerprintscan


NEW DELHI – Around the world, governments are succumbing to the allure of biometric identification systems. To some extent, this may be inevitable, given the burden of demands and expectations placed on modern states. But no one should underestimate the risks these technologies pose.

Biometric identification systems use individuals’ unique intrinsic physical characteristics – fingerprints or handprints, facial patterns, voices, irises, vein maps, or even brain waves – to verify their identity. Governments have applied the technology to verify passports and visas, identify and track security threats, and, more recently, to ensure that public benefits are correctly distributed.

Private companies, too, have embraced biometric identification systems. Smartphones use fingerprints and facial recognition to determine when to “unlock.” Rather than entering different passwords for different services – including financial services – users simply place their finger on a button on their phone or gaze into its camera lens.

It is certainly convenient. And, at first glance, it might seem more secure: someone might be able to find out your password, but how could they replicate your essential biological features?

But, as with so many other convenient technologies, we tend to underestimate the risks associated with biometric identification systems. India has learned about them the hard way, as it has expanded its scheme to issue residents a “unique identification number,” or Aadhaar, linked to their biometrics.

Originally, the Aadhaar program’s primary goal was to manage government benefits and eliminate “ghost beneficiaries” of public subsidies. But it has now been expanded to many spheres: everything from opening a bank account to enrolling children in school to gaining admission to a hospital now requires an Aadhaar. More than 90% of India’s population has enrolled in the program.

But serious vulnerabilities have emerged. Biometric verification may seem like the ultimate tech solution, but human error creates significant risks, especially when data-collection procedures are not adequately established or implemented. In India, the government wanted to enroll a lot of people quickly in the Aadhaar program, so data collection was outsourced to small service providers with mobile machines.

If a fingerprint or iris scan is even slightly tilted or otherwise wrongly positioned, it may not match future verification scans. Moreover, bodies can change over time – for example, daily manual labor may alter fingerprints – creating discrepancies with the recorded data. And that does not even cover the most basic of mistakes, like misspelling names or addresses.

Correcting such errors can be a complicated, drawn-out process. That is a serious problem when one’s ability to collect benefits or carry out financial transactions depends on it. India has had multiple cases of lost entitlements – whether food rations or wages for public-works programs – as a result of biometric mismatches.

If honest mistakes can do that much harm, imagine the damage that can be caused by outright fraud. Police in Gujarat, India, recently found more than 1,100 casts of beneficiary fingerprints made on a silicone-like material, which were used for illicit withdrawals of food rations from the public distribution system. Because we leave fingerprints on everything we touch, we are all vulnerable to such replication.

And manual replication is just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers have created synthetic “MasterPrints” that enabled them to achieve a frighteningly high number of “imposter matches.”

Further risks arise during the transmission and storage of biometric data. Once collected, biometric data are usually moved to a central database for storage. They have to be encrypted while in transit, but the encryptions can be – and have been – hacked. Nor are they necessarily safe once they arrive in local, foreign, or cloud servers.

In India, one of the web systems used to record government employees’ work attendance was left without a password, allowing anyone access to the names, job titles, and partial phone numbers of 166,000 workers. Three official Gujarat-based websites were found to be disclosing beneficiaries’ Aadhaar numbers. And the Ministry of Rural Development accidentally exposed nearly 16 million Aadhaar numbers.

Moreover, an anonymous French security researcher accused two government websites of leaking thousands of IDs, including Aadhaar cards. That leak has now reportedly been plugged. But, given how many public and private agencies have access to the Aadhaar database, such episodes underscore how risky a supposedly secure system can be.

Of course, such vulnerabilities exist with all personal data. But exposure of someone’s biometric information is far more dangerous than exposure of, say, a password or credit card number, because it cannot be undone. We cannot, after all, simply get new irises.

The risk is compounded by efforts to use collected biometric data for monitoring and surveillance, as is occurring in China and elsewhere. In this sense, the large-scale collection and storage of people’s biometric data pose an unprecedented threat to privacy. And few countries have anything close to adequate laws to protect their residents.

In India, revelations of the Aadhaar program’s weaknesses have largely been met with official denials, rather than serious efforts to protect users. Worse, other developing countries, such as Brazil, now risk replicating these mistakes, as they rush to adopt biometric technology. And, given the large-scale data breaches that have occurred in the developed world, these countries’ citizens are not safe, either.

Biometric identification systems are permeating every facet of our lives. Unless and until citizens and policymakers recognize and address the complex security risks they entail, no one should feel safe.


Jayati Ghosh is Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Executive Secretary of International Development Economics Associates, and a member of the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation.