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Crisis fatigue will lead to dire consequences

September 16, 2017

How big can a crisis get before people just move on?

That’s the question the Equifax hack has set at our feet. The breach, which affected an impossible-even-to-envision-at-once 143 million Americans, put the functional equivalent of everyone’s online identities and personal data at risk of theft, exploitation or publication.

And what’s the reaction?

Enterprising clicksters online have made annoying discoveries that shrank down the case for panicked action. Enter a random string of numbers or gibberish into Equifax’s have-I-been-hacked page, for instance, and you got an automatic yes answer. Or, here’s a good one: Equifax turned out — until companies compensated in the wake of the disaster — to be what’s called a root Certificate Authority, used to validate secure websites around the world.

While corrective measures are being taken by people versed in arcane information almost all those 143 million people have no clue about, Equifax is dropping bit after bit of dispiriting news. The vulnerability the hack exploited was left unpatched in March. The breach itself took place six weeks before consumers were notified. And now, we learn some 200,000 credit cards have also been snagged by the wrongdoers.

Of course, there will likely be congressional hearings, not to mention a small armada of lawsuits. And, naturally, it’s never a good idea, strictly speaking, to adopt a fatalistic, devil-may-care attitude toward your personal financial security. Still, if you feel like there’s almost no point in trying to do anything about any of this, you’re not alone. There’s a vicious, borderline Orwellian cycle here. The institutions tasked to keep your most essential information safe now seem just as hard to trust and just as opaque and unaccountable as the bad guys.

Just look at Wells Fargo, which has “found,” over the course of nearly a year, a rolling total of some 3.5 million fake accounts created for no greater or lesser reason than to pad sales figures. Hundreds of thousands of customers were slapped with bogus fees or enrolled in online bill-pay without their authorization. Executives have launched into damage control mode, but really, the ultimate damage control is the disheartened certainty sinking into American life that today’s barrage of crises will be replaced by a fresh batch next year, or next month, each of us just a speck of dust twirling in the maelstrom.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten hold of a person that actually cares. Now they’re fumbling to tell people what’s going on. But they really don’t know what’s going on.” That’s the damning judgment one Equifax customer leveled against the company. But increasingly, the quickest, cheapest and surest means Americans will seize upon to exercise a shred of moral agency amid the maelstrom will be stooping to the same level of uncaring. So we all got our numbers stolen, our identities cloned? Well, maybe we’ll all start defaulting on our debt payments. Maybe you’ll get a taste of your own medicine, powers that be.

That kind of vindictive attitude would be playing with fire. But it’s all too easy to see how many of us would jump, loudly or quietly, on the can’t-arrest-us-all bandwagon. What else has to be done to get results out of our biggest financial services companies? Just as the Equifax hack is too big to make real in our minds, the gigantic banks, credit reporting firms and related organizations are so large and unwieldy that you, the infinitesimally small customer, just can’t matter as much as you’d have a right to expect. The systemic problem is that the system is a problem.

People are experiencing routine burnout in their personal and professional lives, and we’re not even in a full-blown, proper crisis. Picture the burnout to come if and when things take a turn for the worse. Peril especially looms in what are supposed to be the most stable and prestigious places to live and industries to operate in.

The “blood in the water for Silicon Valley” reported by BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith isn’t just a function of companies’ monopolistic activities, domineering cultural agendas, or their strange combination of genius and ineptitude. But those companies are absolutely crucial to the success of America’s coveted urban environments, where housing shortages and crumbling infrastructure are too often the norm, and quality of life is diminishing for those who would rather raise families than be foodies.

The kind of bubble Silicon Valley is most vulnerable to is a customer confidence bubble, with people just abandoning services grown stale and aloof, out-of-touch mega-corporations losing mystique in the same way Equifax or Wells Fargo have lost theirs.

That would promise a real crisis. Then again, the hunger for serving up a taste of our overlords’ own medicine is palpable. In a world where we’re expected to scurry to and fro as the people in charge chronically fail us and take our dependence for granted, it’s increasingly to be expected that political populism will give way to economic populism.

Whether you’re more inclined to go on strike or to go Galt, the effect will be largely the same: Americans walking away from a game they’re forced to play but seemingly can never win.

James Poulos is a columnist for the Southern California News Group.

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