OPM Breach May Have Exposed Feds’ Sex Lives, Info About Security Clearance References
After a week of congressional hearings, we still don’t know the full extent of the massive cyberattacks.
The total number of people affected by the cybersecurity attacks on Office of Personnel Management databases and the entire universe of information exposed to hackers remains unknown – one of the few concrete takeaways from a congressional hearing on Thursday, this week’s third public discussion on the massive security breach.
Hackers could have obtained a vast array of personal information, not just about federal employees, but about their friends and family members as a result of a breach related to security clearance information provided on the SF-86 questionnaire. That’s because applicants have to give federal investigators contact information for reference checks, a point that Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, raised during Thursday’s hearing. But OPM still is conducting a forensic analysis of who and what was affected in the background check breach, which was separate but related to the intrusion involving the personally identifiable information of 4.2 million current and former federal employees. The agency detected the attacks in April 2015 during cybersecurity upgrades, and informed the public in June.
On Monday, CNN reported that hackers may have stolen the personal data of as many as 18 million people from OPM records related to the security clearance breach -- a number that OPM Director Katherine Archuleta would not verify. But her testimony on Thursday indicated it could be less than 18 million, or, incredibly, even more.
“It is my understanding that the 18 million refers to a preliminary, unverified and approximate number of unique Social Security numbers in the background investigative data,” Archuleta said. “It is not a number that I feel comfortable at this time represents the total number of affected individuals. There may be an overlap between the individuals affected in the background investigation incident and the personnel file incident. We’re also trying to determine the individuals who haven’t had their Social Security numbers compromised but may have had other information exposed. I cannot yet provide a more definitive response on the number of individuals affected by the background investigation intrusion, and it may well increase from these initial reports,” she said on Thursday.
A June 24 Daily Beast report said that “a senior U.S. official confirmed that foreign hackers compromised the intimate personal details of an untold number of government workers. Likely included in the hackers’ haul: information about workers’ sexual partners, drug and alcohol abuse, debts, gambling compulsions, marital troubles, and any criminal activity.” On Thursday, Sen. Benjamin Sasse, R-Neb., asked Archuleta about the possibility that hackers were now privy to the sexual histories of applicants for top security positions in government.
“As those of us who’ve been through top secret background investigations know, they ask lots of questions about sexual history, relationships, associations, anything that could lead an individual to be coerced or blackmailed,” Sasse said. “Can you help us understand why this information would have been stored on OPM’s networks to begin with?”
Archuleta said that “it’s part of the background information that we do for the clearances, at very high levels for classified positions,” but that OPM is still trying to “understand how that data was saved” and whether intruders were able to access that information. “I actually don’t know what is stored in which files,” she told Sasse.
Lawmakers repeatedly asked whether Archuleta should remain in her post. The Office of Management and Budget’s Tony Scott, the government’s chief information officer, said Archuleta and OPM CIO Donna Seymour had his “full support,” and that the work the agency is doing now to ramp up its cybersecurity could serve as a model for what other agencies should do. He defended Archuleta and Seymour more than once during the hearing Thursday. “I think we need to be careful about distinguishing firestarters from firefighters in this particular case,” he said, indicating that he believed Archuleta and Seymour were in the firefighting camp.
OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland, however, said he did not have confidence in the agency’s management when asked directly by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “I believe that the interest and intent is there,” McFarland said about management’s capabilities to prevent cyberattacks. “But based on what we’ve found, no.”
The IG this week released a “flash audit” criticizing OPM for its management of a $93 million IT modernization overhaul. McFarland said OPM hasn’t created a business plan for the project, and doesn’t have a dedicated single source of funding, which impedes transparency and raises questions over whether OPM can come up with all the money it needs to pay for the upgrades. He called the funding situation for the project “all over the board” and “sporadic.”
Archuleta said that all of the agency’s decisions on the IT overhaul were being “tracked” and “justified,” and that OPM is “working very closely with OMB.” Still, McFarland said his warnings about cybersecurity and IT project management had been ignored over the years, and that he didn’t “feel that their systems are secure at this point.”
Thursday’s hearing covered similar ground as the other congressional hearings held earlier this week, and unsurprisingly featured a few tense exchanges between lawmakers and witnesses, including one between Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Archuleta.
McCain pointed out that the OPM director told one congressional committee this week that she did not believe anyone was personally to blame for the security breaches, but another panel that she held everyone at OPM responsible for the failure. “In other words, everybody’s responsible, so nobody’s responsible,” McCain quipped. The Republican grilled her over when the agency would inform the public about the extent of the potential privacy violations related to the security clearance breach, and how many people were affected.
Archuleta: “When I know that the number is accurate, then that is the time.”
McCain: “But you can’t tell us when?”
Archuleta: “When they bring me an accurate number, and I have confidence in that number.”
McCain: “Ms. Archuleta, I must say, I’ve seen a lot of performances. Yours ranks as one of the most interesting.”