Equifax will offer a free service starting in January that allows consumers to prevent anyone from accessing their credit files without permission. (Justin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency/EFE)

Equifax, still reeling from a massive hack that exposed sensitive data on about 143 million people, said Thursday that it will begin offering a new service next year that gives consumers more control over their data.

The service, to go live by Jan. 31, will allow consumers to “lock and unlock access to their Equifax credit files,” Paulino do Rego Barros Jr., the company’s interim chief executive, said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Thursday. The service, to be offered free for life, will allow consumers to prevent entities such as banks from accessing their information without their permission, making it harder for hackers to open credit card accounts or take out loans in their names.

In the column, Barros acknowledged the company’s lackluster initial response to the hack, including an inadequate website. “We were hacked. That’s the simple fact,” he said. “But we compounded the problem with insufficient support for consumers. Our website did not function as it should have, and our call center couldn’t manage the volume of calls we received.”

The company is working to correct its mistakes, Barros said, including improving its website and adding agents to its call centers. The company is also giving consumers concerned they may have been affected by the hack more time to sign up for TrustedID Premier, its free credit-monitoring service.

“We have to see this breach as a turning point — not just for Equifax, but for everyone interested in protecting personal data,” he said. “Consumers need the power to control access to personal data.”

Barros, who was appointed interim chief executive Tuesday, appears to be acting quickly in the face of growing public outrage over the hack. Equifax is already under investigation by the FBI, and one of Equifax’s chief regulators, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is calling for lawmakers to give the agency more power to oversee the industry. Next week, the company’s former chief executive and chairman, Richard Smith, is scheduled to appear before two congressional committees, and Democrats are calling on Congress to take potentially drastic measures to revamp the credit rating companies.

“While it is good to see Equifax finally bowing to weeks of public pressure to get here, I hope the Senate will look closely at this issue so that these companies are held accountable going forward,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in a statement.

The company’s efforts could lower the risk of a significant political fallout from the hack, Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with the Cowen Group, said in a research report Thursday. “This doesn’t mean members of Congress won’t yell and scream next week. We continue to expect these hearings to be brutal as lawmakers want to vent over data security and privacy,” Seiberg said. But “Equifax is laying the foundation for a response that makes enactment of legislation that could blow up the credit bureau business model less likely.”

But some consumer groups remain unimpressed by the company’s efforts. It is unclear whether consumers will have to give up some of their rights by signing up for Equifax’s new service to lock their credit reports, said Mike Litt, consumer advocate at U.S. PIRG. The service will apply only to personal information held by Equifax. It does not include the other major credit reporting companies, Experian and TransUnion, he said.

“Previous offers from Equifax to victims of the Equifax breach came with strings attached — specifically, signing away your right to a day in court in the future,” Litt said.

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