Chinese hackers crack database of federal workers, contractors
WASHINGTON — Authorities are investigating a breach of the computer networks of the Office of Personnel Management, which stores detailed data on as many as 5 million federal employees and contractors who hold sensitive security clearances.
Authorities have traced the intrusion to China, but it is not clear whether the hackers worked for the government, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
So far, no personal data appear to have been stolen, according to OPM spokeswoman Nathaly Arriola. A U.S. official said the data is encrypted.
Arriola said that OPM and the Department of Homeland Security were alerted to the breach in mid-March through an automated monitoring system. The intrusion apparently was detected early enough that a DHS computer emergency-readiness team, working with the agency, was able to block the intruder and minimize the harm.
The Chinese military has waged a persistent, more than decade-long cyber campaign to steal many types of information — from military weapon designs to proprietary data on advanced technologies to insight into government policies — from the computer networks of the federal government and its contractors as well as from other Western governments and companies.
News of the breach, first reported by The New York Times, was disclosed as senior U.S. officials met in Beijing with their counterparts for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Secretary of State John Kerry said the dialogue had finished by the time he was notified of the report, but he said he raised the general issue of Chinese targeting of U.S. systems and was “very clear” that it was an area of concern.
Chinese officials steadfastly deny that Beijing hacks U.S. computers and have pointed to reports based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the United States has compromised the systems of a major Chinese telecommunications equipment company, Huawei.
Former U.S. officials said that if the intruders were successful in siphoning data from OPM, they would have gained access to a treasure trove of personal information that could enable more attacks. Experts say there are ways around encryption.
The agency operates a computerized program called e-QIP, which processes applications for security clearances, including top-secret and higher. Stored in the system are huge amounts of data, including applicants' financial histories and investment records, children's and relatives' names, foreign trips taken and contacts with foreign nationals, past residences, and names of neighbors and close friends such as college roommates and co-workers. Employees log in using their Social Security number.
“If the Chinese government got access to that type of data, it would be a significant breach because the data would allow them to have very detailed information about people who hold very sensitive clearances,” said Shawn Henry, a former executive assistant director of the FBI's Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch.
The data could enable a hacker to craft more sophisticated efforts to send emails to government officials aimed at getting them to download malware by posing as people who know them — a technique known as “spearphishing,” said Henry, who is chief security officer at CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm. It could help them gain access to sensitive computer accounts and potentially conduct a physical attack or attempt extortion, he said.
The hacker could know virtually “every single person who is cleared in the U.S.,” said Jacob Olcott of Good Harbor Consulting, a cyber-risk management company, and a former counsel for the Senate Commerce committee. “So when they want access to the Energy Department program on such and such, they'll say, ‘Who do we know there? Let's send a spearphishing email to get access to their computer.' ”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Social Security’s $300M IT project doesn’t work
- Massachusetts teen held in teacher’s slaying accused assaulting detention center worker
- Man told transit police the Boston Marathon bomber ‘was my best friend’
- Mont. senator’s thesis appears to have been plagarized
- Ariz. inmate’s execution apparently botched
- Head of troubled CDC anthrax lab quits
- U.S. knew Islamist militants planned offensive in Iraq, lawmakers told
- Fire season expected to accelerate
- Obamacare enrollees strain Medicaid in Oregon
- Can Georgia GOP ‘outsider’ Perdue best Democrats’ Nunn?
- Biden decries voting restrictions in NAACP address