Hold Wells Fargo ac­count­able for any wrong­do­ing

Peo­ple are about to learn whether No­bel Prize-win­ning econ­o­mist Joseph E. Stiglitz was right when he said: “We have banks that are not only too big to fail, but also too big to be held ac­count­able.”

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION -

The state De­part­ment of Jus­tice on Wed­nes­day launched a probe into al­le­ga­tions of crim­i­nal iden­tity theft linked to the Wells Fargo unau­tho­rized ac­counts scan­dal.

If it was not crim­i­nal for in­di­vid­ual bank em­ploy­ees, or­dered by Wells Fargo ex­ec­u­tives, to use cus­tomers’ in­for­ma­tion to open unau­tho­rized ac­counts un­der their names, it ought to be. This adds to the press­ing need for Congress to pass a com­pre­hen­sive Con­sumer Pri­vacy Bill of Rights. Amer­i­cans de­serve clear pri­vacy pro­tec­tion of per­sonal data, whether it’s for busi­nesses’ in­ter­nal use, un­war­ranted govern­ment in­tru­sion or shar­ing of per­sonal data for profit.

Wells Fargo em­ploy­ees cre­ated as many as 2 mil­lion unau­tho­rized ac­counts to meet un­rea­son­able sales tar­gets, lead­ing to $185 mil­lion in fines by sev­eral reg­u­la­tory agen­cies and the res­ig­na­tion of dis­graced CEO John Stumpf. The ques­tion is whether bank em­ploy­ees ac­cessed the bank’s com­puter sys­tem in a man­ner that, un­der cur­rent law, con­sti­tutes iden­tity theft and to what ex­tent man­age­ment con­doned the prac­tice.

Cal­i­for­nia At­tor­ney General Ka­mala Har­ris is de­mand­ing all emails and com­mu­ni­ca­tions of em­ploy­ees and man­agers with any con­nec­tion to the unau­tho­rized ac­counts.

Bank­ing ex­perts say the ap­proach is un­usual but could lead be­yond the iden­tity theft is­sue to a wide range of po­ten­tial crim­i­nal charges. It also could re­sult in sanc­tions by the state of Cal­i­for­nia in ad­di­tion to Trea­surer John Chi­ang’s an­nounce­ment last month that his of­fice was sus­pend­ing Wells Fargo from do­ing busi­ness with the state. Ohio and Illi­nois have also cut off busi­ness re­la­tions with the bank.

Given the bank­ing and tech­nol­ogy in­dus­tries’ ma­jor stake in con­sumer trust of their prod­ucts, it’s mind­bog­gling that the United States re­mains the only ma­jor de­vel­oped na­tion with­out fun­da­men­tal on­line user pro­tec­tions. We shouldn’t have to won­der if prac­tices like Wells Fargo’s are le­gal or not.

Tech firms make boat­loads of money from shar­ing user data. But ul­ti­mately, con­sumer pro­tec­tions and full dis­clo­sure about how user data is shared are in busi­nesses’ best in­ter­ests.

Pres­i­dent Obama used his 2015 State of the Union ad­dress to push Congress to pass a pi­o­neer­ing data pri­vacy bill of rights, but the leg­is­la­tion went nowhere.

“We pi­o­neered the in­ter­net,” Obama said. “But we also pi­o­neered the bill of rights and a sense each of us as in­di­vid­u­als have a sphere of pri­vacy around us that should not be breached by our govern­ment but also by com­mer­cial in­ter­ests.”

The Wells Fargo out­rage and the re­cent rev­e­la­tion that Ya­hoo scanned hun­dreds of mil­lions of cus­tomers’ emails for in­for­ma­tion re­quested by U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers demand that the next pres­i­dent and Congress move ba­sic pri­vacy pro­tec­tion to the top of the pri­or­ity list for 2017.

Pres­i­dent Obama used his 2015 State of the Union ad­dress to push Congress to pass a pi­o­neer­ing data pri­vacy bill of rights, but the leg­is­la­tion went nowhere.

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