There have been numerous opportunities this week to watch former Equifax CEO Richard Smith eat humble pie over the hack that exposed the Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and other personal information of 145.5 million Americans. On Tuesday, Smith appeared before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where members of Congress complained about the company for several hours. But if you missed it, no worries! Smith also appeared before the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday morning and the Senate Judiciary Committee later that afternoon. On Thursday, it’s back to the House, this time for a turn in front of the House Financial Committee.
Make no mistake, there is plenty of material to excoriate Smith over. In the days after Equifax announced the massive breach, it epically bungled its response. Web pages couldn’t handle the traffic. The complimentary credit-monitoring product offered up by the company—free for one year—initially required those signing up for it to waive their right to turn to the courts in the event of a dispute. The company’s Twitter feed directed desperate people seeking answers to a phishing site, for almost two weeks. Responses to questions from journalists were rude, and that’s when the company bothered to acknowledge them at all. Smith even gave out false information at the Tuesday hearing; it turns out that you don’t actually need to mail in your security PIN to lift a credit freeze.
Many commentators have been quick to point out that Equifax’s abysmal customer service can be explained by the fact that the word “customer” is a misnomer in this case. The 145.5 million people whose information is almost certainly compromised for the remainder of their lives are not, for the most part, purchasing services from Equifa (though the company appears quite happy to sell us credit-protection services if we are interested). Instead, it’s the banks and other firms interested in consumer data who buy Equifax products.
But something else also needs to be said: Equifax is hardly alone here. Corporate indifference to the public is a marker of our oligarchic age, and it doesn’t seem to matter who is paying the bills. Even as Smith was making the first of his three congressional appearances this week, Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan was updating the Senate Banking Committee about how the too-big-to-fail bank encouraged its employees to keep up with unrealistic sales quotas by setting up millions of fake accounts for its customers. Other companies aren’t behaving much better. It was, after all, only a few months ago that United Airlines was the scandal of the moment, after a video went viral of airport security violently removing a passenger from a plane after he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. Then there is Uber, which… well, what hasn’t Uber done?