In 2017 the private credit information of 143 millions Americans was stolen from Equifax. But the records have never been offered for sale on the black market, which is highly unusual. (The only person who has so far profited from the breach seems to be Equifax CEO Richard F. Smith, who resigned with an $80 million retirement package.)
So, who stole the records of 1/2 the US population, and why? CNBC interviewed "experts, intelligence officials, dark web data 'hunters' and Equifax" and the consensus seems to be China or Russia did it as a way to recruit spies.
One former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the Equifax investigation summarized the prevailing expert opinion on how the foreign intelligence agency is using the data. (This person asked to speak on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized in his current role to speak to media.)
First, he said, the foreign government is probably combining this information with other stolen data, then analyzing it using artificial intelligence or machine learning to figure out who's likely to be — or to become — a spy for the U.S. government. He pointed to other data breaches that focused on information that could be useful for identifying spies, such as a 2015 breach of the Office of Personnel Management, which processes the lengthy security clearance applications for U.S. government officials.
Second, credit reporting data provides compromising information that can be used to turn valuable people into agents of a foreign government, influencers or, for lower-level employees, data thieves or informants. In particular, the credit information can be used to identify people in key positions who have significant financial problems and could be compromised by bribes or high-paying jobs, the former official said. Financial distress is one of the most common reasons people commit espionage.
The Equifax data provides information that could identify people who aren't even in these positions of influence yet, he said, and could be valuable for years to come.
Image used in collage: IgorGolovniov/Shutterstock