By Robert A. Vella
If you are reading this editorial, consider yourself in exclusive company. For most people, concern over the massive data breach of a credit-monitoring company this year is virtually non-existent. Who cares if hackers stole sensitive financial information on 143 million U.S. consumers? Who cares if Equifax was negligent in protecting that information? Who cares if the federal government allows these powerful corporations to conduct their business with so little regard for private citizens? Really, who cares? Where’s my Raspberry Kiss with three shots of espresso and extra whipped cream?
Well, everyone should care because there is an even bigger problem here than just the increasing incidence and severity of cyber security failures and identity theft. It is no less than the disempowerment and dehumanization of ordinary people in a sick, overly technocratic society motivated by greed, self-interest, and the lust for power. You can blame the computer hackers, whoever they are, for this data breach. Or, you can blame Equifax or the lack of governmental oversight. But, the most deserved blame rests on the underlying socioeconomic system that enabled it.
Americans generally misunderstand the purpose of the three major credit monitoring companies. The common misconception is that they earn their money by supplying financial institutions with the credit-scores of loan applicants. Originally, that was their primary purpose. But, today, they are mainly in the business of selling consumer information to data mining enterprises who perform analytical services to a variety of public and private entities (e.g. corporations, governments, and other organizations). Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times explained it Friday in a column titled Here are all the ways the Equifax data breach is worse than you can imagine:
The most important lesson in the Equifax breach is an old one: Consumers whose information is held by Equifax are not its customers or clients — they’re the product, and their personal information merely raw material to be exploited by the firm for its own profit. Equifax and its two major competitors in the credit-monitoring game, Experian and TransUnion, make their money by compiling detailed files on individuals and selling them to credit card firms, banks and marketers. In short, they don’t care about you, except so far as you’re an entry in their databases.
Therefore, the only concern Equifax would have over this breach is whether or not it was paid for the data.
Hiltzik goes on to detail how Equifax delayed public notification of the data breach, how its top executives profited from the delay, and how the company is trying to use this incident to further exploit consumers.
If your only concern over these data breaches is the possibility of having your identity stolen, then you are missing the point. Acts of corruption multiply and spread like a disease. If the individual antibodies of our socioeconomic anatomy – that means you and me – only react when personally threatened, then the infection of corruption will eventually threaten the entire system… like now.