How lucky for the C-suite at Equifax that the second monster hurricane of the season largely changed the subject for them over the weekend. When it was revealed last week that hackers successfully breached the company’s defenses from May to July of this year, a catastrophic dereliction of duty, the company initially tried to brush it off as a “cybersecurity intrusion” or an “incident.” Then Irma hit the Florida Keys, and America’s attention shifted with it.
This is very wrong.
More than 143 million Americans are now exposed to financial fraud. That’s 55 percent of all adults, and almost exactly as many people in the entire labor force. Our dates-of-birth, Social Security numbers — which are basically passwords you can never change — and God knows what else are all out there, floating freely through the dark web until someone hoovers them up, at which point there’s almost limitless damage they can do to you. And if you’re one of the victims, fixing a mess you did not create will fall entirely on your shoulders.
Equifax’s response was to pretend to act contrite and attempt to trick people into forfeiting their right to join a class-action suit later. In short, the company offered to do the very least it could do, and it still managed to gift-wrap it in a fuck-you. Worse, three executives knew about it and dumped their Equifax shares as soon as they could, profiting from their error and our misfortune. Martha Stewart went to jail for something very similar.
How is this not an absolutely intolerable state of affairs? This is a fuck-up of such magnitude that it has the potential to ruin millions of peoples’ lives for years, if not forever. So, because Equifax embodies the predatory model of late capitalism, and because it should have been focused with laser-like intensity on securing the vast hoards of personal financial information it profits from, and because it sat on knowledge of the hack for about seven weeks, and because it then attempted to herd the victims along an extortionate, self-absolving path, there really is only one answer.
We must put every single person who works for Equifax to death. Preferably in public, tomorrow, at sunrise.
A little background: Equifax, which is headquartered in Atlanta, is the largest of the three credit bureaus. The other two are Experian — based in Dublin, Ireland, and the subject of a similar breach in 2015 — and TransUnion, located in Chicago. Together, they represent an unholy alliance of behind-the-scenes financial power, shadowy custodians who traffic in reputations, business-facing gatekeepers whose existence we did not consent to. The blandly named Richard F. Smith has been the CEO of Equifax since 2005, after a long stint at G.E. where he worked with Engineering Thermoplastics. If that sounds like the paradigmatic company man to you, check out the overwhelmingly white and male leadership structure of the company.
More to the point, Equifax has about 10,000 employees worldwide, all of whom are tasked with judging us on how responsible we are with our money. That’s basically the company’s reason for existing: determining ordinary people’s “credit-worthiness” and then haunting us for years and years because of the random shit life throws in our way. Did you have a rough patch in 2009-2010 when you couldn’t find work because the world was experiencing the deepest recession since the 1930s? Well, if you fell behind on your credit-card payments or your student loans in that period, that might still be on your Permanent Record, maintained by the same people who just experienced this massive data breach. It’s hypocrisy on a grand scale.
Did your spouse have cancer before the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, racking up so many medical bills that the bank foreclosed on your house? Were you the victim of identity theft and only found out about it months later? Are you a fastidiously responsible person who just “has one card and uses it for everything“? The self-appointed guardians of financial morality have been tracking these grievous character flaws all the while, making it harder — if not outright impossible — to secure a loan, get a credit card, fill prescriptions, or even get a job. That’s right: We live in a society that has been so financialized, and in such a Kafka-esque way, that securing employment can depend on having a good credit report. (Mercifully, California law forbids this.)
In a manner of speaking, hacks and data breaches are things happen all the time, and we’ve grown inured to them — especially against the background radiation of things like, oh, trying to convince the credit agencies you’re alive when they’re quite certain you’re dead. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion are decidedly error-prone, but after disasters of this scope, we cannot continue to let corporate misdeeds off with mere hand-wringing and a mealy-mouthed apology phrased in the passive voice. Yes, Yahoo had a bigger breach in 2015, but people can elect not to use Yahoo. (You can also sue Yahoo over it, we’ve recently learned.) But you can’t unilaterally withdraw from the credit agencies — unless you plan on living off-the-grid or cashing your paycheck with even worse money-gougers, never aspiring to buy a home or a car.
They must die — all of them. It’s that simple.
We have acquiesced to a world that operates precisely backward. The ostensible purpose of a panopticon credit bureau is to provide us with “peace of mind” about our financial future. But just as surveillance societies immediately run into the problem of who watches the watchers, how do we judge the judges after they amassed everything about us? Especially when they reveal themselves to be predatory, self-interested, and mendacious? Apparently, Congress is not pleased with Equifax’s response — but under a GOP-controlled government, we can basically expect little more than a sternly worded letter or two from a handful of ranking Democrats on a few committees.
This is unacceptable. American society has drifted in a sociopathic direction for years, often with the fig-leaf of populism. The president extols police violence and even vigilantism, while the Attorney General reinstated the seizure of assets from people who have yet to be accused of a crime. Op-ed writers are openly calling for pre-emptive genocide in North Korea. The rot is bipartisan, too: Even the quasi-canonized Barack Obama waged a ghoulish, extralegal drone war that killed many civilians. Meanwhile, capital punishment continues in the U.S., sometimes to a cartoonishly depraved extent. If we care at all about the wellbeing of our fellow citizens or any form of redistributive racial justice, this point is abundantly clear: Anyone at Equifax who’s convicted of negligence and corporate malfeasance merits the death penalty, full stop.
Of course, I do not believe any of that. Capital punishment is a barbaric anachronism, and even if investing the State with the power to take life at will could magically right wrongs in more than a crude, code-of-Hammurabi way, executions also demonstrably fail as a deterrent.
But it’s revealing that a nation obsessed with a largely fictitious national crime wave — one in which a “Blue Lives Matter” movement strikes many people as a logical response to peaceful protests in response to racially charged murders by police — this topic doesn’t seem to be discussed, anywhere. White-collar crime, however enormous and far-reaching and devastating to people’s lives and futures, will never get absorbed into the so-called populism of the moment. “Tough on crime” stances almost never apply to fraud or insider trading. Hardly anyone went to jail after 2008 except Bernie Madoff, and right now, after all the fuss about “draining the swamp,” the two Cabinet officials who seem to horrify progressives the least — the “adults,” you might say — are Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn, who hail from ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs, respectively. We hear so much hue an cry about ordinary Americans feeling dispossessed by the system, yet here comes indisputable proof of how the system insulates itself from blowback — and we hear little but grumbling on Twitter.
How is this not an opening for progressive populism? Where is the savvy pol demagoguing his or her way to power on this issue? Why are people so skeptical of people like New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has a proven track record of standing up for regular people against bad actors? If community organizations like ACORN can essentially close up shop overnight because enough people were erroneously convinced they weren’t do-gooders after all, why isn’t it a snap to dismantle the credit ratings agencies? Of all places, San Francisco should pay close attention, because credit scores are inextricably tied to gentrification and displacement.
In the Old Testament era, because mercy was something the ancients understood better than we do, proclaiming a “Jubilee Year” would mean the forgiveness of debts. (They happened every seven years, the same duration as a credit report.) Presumably, choosing not to extract a pound of flesh from debtors who couldn’t pay also maintained the overall health of the system: Immiserate enough people, and they might revolt. We live in restive times, and the social contract is fraying, yet corporate dominance continues. In a short time, Equifax’s sins will have receded into the fog, but in a just world where credit and credibility went hand-in-hand, they would vanish. They have no credit, and they deserve none.