Massive Cyberattack Results in Data Breach of 4 Million Federal Employees’ Records

UPDATE: According to an article from the Credit Union Times, the Office of Personnel Management announced on its website that it will start sending out notification emails to affected individuals. Experts warn, however, that this is a great way for scammers to start sending out phishing emails targeting everyone, even individuals not affected by the breach. It is suspected that the emails might look the same as the legitimate notification emails, but including (for example) a link to a “free credit monitoring service” that will, in fact, be a phishing landing page designed to steal personal information.

Government officials who are familiar with developments told the Associated Press (AP) that the data breach happened at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which was the target of malicious hackers. The Interior Department was also targeted and this leaves the data and records that contain personal information of 4 million people across every federal agency, compromised and vulnerable.

“The FBI is conducting an investigation to identify how and why this occurred,” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a statement. “DHS is continuing to monitor federal networks for any suspicious activity and is working aggressively with the affected agencies to conduct investigative analysis to assess the extent of this alleged intrusion.”

The Office of Personnel Management is essentially the human resources department for the Federal government, tasked with:

  • Issuing security clearances for employees at different government agencies, and
  • Handling all employee and personnel records.

The possibility of a data breach was first detected back in April, by the Department of Homeland Security. An internal investigation conducted in May, confirmed that the breach had indeed occurred.

“The FBI is working with our interagency partners to investigate this matter,” an FBI spokesman said in a statement. “We take all potential threats to public and private sector systems seriously, and will continue to investigate and hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace.”

The Breach

While all signs point to the intruders/malicious hackers being state-sponsored, the breach itself granted potential access to data that included employees’ social security numbers, performance ratings, training information, job assignments and more. The exposed information could likely lead to phishing emails, developed to trick unsuspecting users to opening a link or an attachment which would then allow the malicious hacker to gain access to a system or network.

“Certainly, OPM is a high value target,” said OPM Chief Information Officer Donna Seymour. “We have a lot of information about people, and that is something that our adversaries want.”

The Usual Suspects

U.S. officials and authorities strongly suspect the hack to originate from China. Some officials described the data breach as one of the single largest thefts of government records and data ever seen. The Office of Personnel Management – the target of the hack said in a statement that it is working in collaboration with the FBI and the DOH. While the specific numbers of how many government officials affected and separately, contractors affected could not be assessed from the data breach, the OPM said that even more records could be discovered to be stolen.

“We take very seriously our responsibility to secure the information stored in our systems, and in coordination with our agency partners, our experienced team is constantly identifying opportunities to further protect the data with which we are entrusted,” OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said.

For its part, the Chinese embassy in Washington has kept quiet in the matter, not responding to any news outlets’ requests for a comment just yet.