Techtonic: Jessamyn West Interview about Equifax small claims case

Mark Hurst and I talk about the case

This is a transcription of an interview on WFMU’s Techtonic radio show with Mark Hurst from September 25, 2017. You can listen to this show here.

Mark Hurst: …What Thomas and his 149 co-authors are trying to do with the Copenhagen letter is to challenge people to take a positive action that leads to some significant, tangible outcome in the world. And so I found someone who is doing that. I’m going to be looking for more people who are doing this, but in the couple of days since I learned about the Copenhagen letter, I found, in my social media news feed, an old acquaintance of mine who is taking an action. And it has to do with the Equifax breach. Do you know about this? Over 130 million Americans’ personal data has been hacked, by, well, we’re not sure who did it, but their data is now in the hands of who knows who out there, on the wild internet. And it’s because Equifax did an insufficient job of guarding their data. Well, one woman, Jessamyn West, decided to take matters into her own hands, and she has decided to take Equifax to court, herself. She is a library technologist, living in central Vermont, and I spoke with her earlier today. Here’s the conversation.

Mark: Welcome to Techtonic, and thank you for talking to me.

Jessamyn: Thanks! Thanks for having me.

Mark: You and I have known each other, somewhat, for a number of years, and your recent adventure popped up into my news feed saying that you were taking Equifax to small claims court. Tell me about it!

Jessamyn: When I read about the Equifax stuff, which was right after my birthday, after Labor Day weekend, and everybody wanted to talk about it, but they wanted to talk about it in that, “I sorta read an article about it but I don’t really know what’s going on?” and I hate these kinds of conversations, even though I love these people, so maybe it’s time to craft the conversation I want to have, which is- let’s fight back. Or let’s do something.

I was like, well, I live in a small town in Vermont; I’m in one of the smallest counties in one of the smallest states. Doing something like taking someone to small claims court is not actually a complicated deal, it just costs a little bit of money and takes a little bit of time. So I was like, well, why don’t I take Equifax to small claims court? And then, at least, when we talk about Equifax, we can talk about this, instead of talking about “Rrrrr, guess what else these idiots did!” Which is never a fun conversation, it only goes down, it never goes up.

Mark: Right. Rather than sitting around and complaining about what happened, and this is bad, and imputing all sorts of evil motives and incompetence, why don’t we instead talk about the actions we’re taking?

Jessamyn: Yeah! And don’t get me wrong, I think complaining is important. I think it’s important to say, this is really terrible. And these people did things that have really negative influences, whether they meant to do it or not. It’s, you know, slightly academic. Although, less academic now, because I guess it can go before the judge and talk about it. Realistically, I feel like empowering people and saying nominally we’re still a civil society, there are remedies available to you besides the ones the company tells you you have, let’s look at how that works.

I think a lot of people aren’t super plugged in to civics — no surprise. I feel like there have been bad actors trying to divorce us from civics for quite a long time. But it is still a thing you can do for the price of filing some paperwork and paying some court fees, and Equifax has certain things they have to do as a result. Like, they can’t just blow it off, like an email, or a phone call, or ranting on Twitter or your blog. They actually have to respond in some way.

Mark: So let’s talk about the actions you took. You went to the courthouse- or, you went to the Post Office to file the papers, and-

Jessamyn: Nah, I went to a website! And printed out some papers. I could have gone to the courthouse, I guess.

Mark: Well, you have such an attractive photograph of the courthouse.

Jessamyn: It’s so cute. Orange County, it’s in Chelsea, Vermont, which is about 1200 people, and the county seat has this beautiful old-school courthouse.

A different photo of the courthouse

Mark: So, what happened. You went to the website, you filed the papers, and all told, between the filing fees and the Post Office fees, to mail it and get a signature back, you’re in for, what, about $100?

Jessamyn: About 100 bucks and some stamps, and along the way, I got to talk to everybody at the post office about this, and I get to talk to people at dinner about this, and I get to talk to people on the internet about this, and — you know, just for the amount — it’s kind of weird to say, but just for the amount of exposure- you know, people are all “whuuuh…”

“Paid in exposure” is this internet joke, where you’re supposed to work for free because you get paid in exposure. Sometimes, ponying up a little bit of money, so that you get the exposure- I mean, I guess I could have said I was gonna file in small claims court and not done anything, but it has a certain utility. I have conversations that I think are going to help people understand data privacy and data security, instead of just reading stuff in the paper, which is a lot of, like O_O kind of complicated to understand, or people just… they feel helpless and don’t know how they can do anything. And I’m like, “well, you could sue them in small claims court too…” And 100 bucks isn’t nothing, but it’s an attainable amount of money for most people, it’s not saying it will cost you $5000 and you’ll have to fly to California.

Mark: Right.

Jessamyn: Georgia, I guess, is where they are.

Mark: And moreover, as you said, Equifax is going to have to physically take some action to officially respond to the suit. Does that mean they’re going to have to send someone to Chelsea, Vermont, to the courthouse?

Jessamyn: Yeah! One of the things that’s interesting about businesses, in general, is that they have to have registered agents in the states in which they do business. And usually this is just another business, and their job is to receive mail. But if you want to sue them, you can find the name of their registered agent in the state, and that’s who you send your letter to. And then, I assume — this is sort of my not-total-understanding on the back end — they talk to Equifax Corporate, and are like, “Ehh, what do we do here?”

A lot of times what people do in small claims court is they counter-sue, like you’re mad at someone because they did a thing, and they’re like, “Well, I’m mad too! So rrraaawwwr!” But Equifax is really not going to be able to do that, in this — I did nothing to Equifax, you know what I mean? Like, I’m not even their customer. I’m just a small, microscopic fraction of all the data they insecurely, essentially, lost, or made available to the internet. And so they’re going to have to send a person to Chelsea, Vermont, at a date that’s probably not super convenient for anybody, but I live nearby, so it’s not a huge deal for me, you know, an hour and a half from the nearest airport, practically — to sit and talk to me about what damages I think they owe me, and then a judge in Chelsea, Vermont, will make a decision.

Mark: And what damages do you think you might ask for?

Jessamyn: Well, and that’s the thing, right? There’s a lot of lawyers, and Twitter-lawyers, on Twitter, saying “Yeah, what are your damages?” and I’m, like, well… you know, Equifax offered me a year of “credit monitoring”, through a company that they own. In fact, if you read the articles, that they’d probably recently purchased, after they found out about the hack, but before they’d mentioned it to people. Awkward! And I don’t want Equifax’s credit monitoring, and I don’t want to have anything to do with Equifax. I want to sever my relationship with Equifax.

Mark: That’s right. And I think part of what’s going to happen from your actions here is that you’re going to inspire others to take action on their own. You mentioned earlier that there’s a chatbot that claims to help people file similar suits against Equifax, in what, I think New York and California? Do you think that chatbot would actually effect the same sort of suit that you’ve brought about in the Chelsea Courthouse?

Jessamyn: Well there’s kind of two parts to it, right? So the thing that inspired me was- oh, there’s a chatbot that will let you file a small claims case, and then I went and investigated, and then it turned out it was only for New York and California. But if the paperwork is so simple that a bot can be written to do it, I can do it. And so filing the paperwork, and writing a check — and I don’t know if the costs are the same across states, I assume not? Because the limits are different across states, how much you can sue for? And so part of it is just filing the paperwork, and then waiting for people to get back to you, but part of it is sort of continuing to kick the ball down the field of this slightly boring, tedious process.

You know, I had to “serve” Equifax. So I had to send them the paperwork that said they were being sued, you know, the pictures of which were what I put up on Twitter that made people laugh and et cetera. But you have to send it to their registered agent, you have to send it “return receipt requested”, if they don’t say something after 30 days, you gotta send a Sheriff? And that’s a pain in the neck, and it costs money. So the first part is just getting all the paperwork done. And then the second part is, once you get a court date, are you going to show up and hassle these people. And, you know, Equifax has a lot of resources, they have a lot of money, I’m sure this is going to be more of a gnat in their ear than a “Oh, this is a Grassroots Movement we should take very seriously!” but I’m fine doing that, and I think this is not a completely unusual perspective.

I haven’t heard that other people have gone all the way through the paperwork and process filing and whatever. It may also be that other courts are slower than Chelsea, Vermont Orange County Courthouse? Because there’s probably not that much going on there? But I’m really curious to find out, because it would be fun if it were a bunch of people, all comparing notes and like, “this is what I did, and this is what happened, and this is whatever,” because there was a lot of hubbub originally- “oh, if I accept Equifax’s credit monitoring gig, maybe I can’t sue them in small claims”. Which was kind of a close reading of some terms and services that weren’t intended to apply to the thing, but that Equifax slapped all this stuff on the internet, and, you know, they came back around.

But I do think people are like, well, do I just wait for the class action case? And get, you know, $7 for my troubles? Which is often how these things work out? And… maybe. Or maybe you can try small claims and see what happens. I mean, it is $100 out the window if it doesn’t come to anything, and for some people, that’s real money. For me, that has a certain amount of utility. My mother, who passed away earlier in the summer, was also a real good “mama bear” about jumping to the defense of people who were less powerful and had less social capital. And so I kind of like to think she would have liked this, at the same time? And so there’s part of that wrapped up in this. It’s not a goof, exactly, and it’s not a stunt, exactly, but I also won’t feel like it’s a failure if at the end of the day Equifax, or the judge, decides maybe they don’t owe me any money after all.

Mark: And if you do get monetary damages, I think you posted what you intend to do with those, right?

Jessamyn: Food Bank. Goes straight to the Food Bank. Feed my neighbors.

Mark: Well, I do hope the Food Bank gets a donation from you, for your efforts. And I appreciate you walking us through the process. I’d be interested to hear from Techtonic listeners to see if any of them take an action on the basis of your story. And, Jessamyn, I hope that you’ll keep in touch with us, and check in again later to let us know how it all turned out.

Jessamyn: Absolutely.

Thank you to Angela Piller for the transcription. This is part of the larger story Suing Equifax in Small Claims Court

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