As information continues to trickle out about the recent massive data breach at the federal government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM), federal workers are being asked to take extra precautions to safeguard both their personal information and classified government secrets.
The Associated Press reports that numerous members of Congress, including some on the House Intelligence Committee, are concerned that this most recent incident of hacking to a government computer network could lead to more large-scale national security incidents, including the breach of classified military secrets, ongoing foreign policy matters or even economic strategies.
The attack is believed to have taken place in December, but was not discovered until April, when the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were informed. Details were not released to the public until June. The attack has been traced and reportedly initiated in China, though authorities have fallen short of specifying whether the attack is believed to be a "nation-state" attack, sanctioned by the Chinese government.
Federal workers and even some government contractors were immediately asked to change all their computer passwords, put fraud alerts on all their credit reports and beware of anyone suddenly befriending them or targeting them for bribes, the AP reports.
Though the attack was initiated on a computer system maintained by the Department of the Interior, it could affect every single federal agency, according to the AP's report — and possibly even some private citizens.
According to ABC News, also stored on OPM's systems are applications filled out by private citizens who need security clearances to do some private sector jobs. In addition to a wealth of information about the candidate, they are also asked to submit information about their spouses or significant others, some relatives, and also "three people who know you well," including friends, roommates, neighbors, colleagues or other acquaintances.
So, how did this happen? Unfortunately, experts say attacks such as this - which some are calling "the biggest government hack ever" - are becoming harder and harder to detect for systems such as "Einstein," the name given to the government's multibillion-dollar intrusion detection and prevention system that stands guard over much of its Internet traffic. According to a report by technology news site Ars Technica, the intrusion into the OPM's system was cleverly disguised as "normal network traffic." Sadly, many recent large-scale cyber attacks are getting away with the same trick.
"Put simply, as new capabilities for Einstein are being rolled out, they're not keeping pace with the types of threats now facing federal agencies," said Ars Technica's Sean Gallagher.
The OPM breach follows a long and embarrassing list of such incidents that have occurred over the past few years, most, if not all, of which are linked back to foreign hackers. In the past year, North Korea is believed to be responsible for the large-scale attack on Sony Pictures' email archives. Meanwhile, Russian hackers are believed to be behind several cyber attacks of their own, including a breach of the White House's and State Departments' email systems, the hacking of banking giant JP Morgan Chase's network, and fraudulent tax returns filed through the Internal Revenue System's website, with the goal of cashing in on millions in refunds.
"With the data from OPM and other breaches, foreign intelligence services have a goldmine of information about federal employees at every level of the government," adds Gallagher. "It's a worrisome cache that could easily be leveraged for additional, highly-targeted cyber attacks and other espionage."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest says the FBI is continuing to investigate the matter, though some officials are saying they are fairly confident the OPM breach was a "state-funded attack" by China, given that the information has not been posted anywhere.
"Most likely, the information was obtained for intelligence purposes—having security investigation data on key government employees could prove very useful for any foreign intelligence organization," Grayson Milbourne, security intelligence director at Webroot, told Ars Technica.
According to the Washington Post, some believe the same group who carried out this attack on the OPM could also be responsible for the large cyber attack on health insurance giant Anthem earlier this year.