Posts Tagged: OPM Breach


7
Sep 16

Congressional Report Slams OPM on Data Breach

The massive data breach at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that exposed background investigations and fingerprint data on millions of Americans was the result of a cascading series of cybersecurity blunders from the agency’s senior leadership on down to the outdated technology used to secure the sensitive data, according to a lengthy report released today by a key government oversight panel.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

The 241-page analysis, commissioned by the U.S. House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, blames OPM for jeopardizing U.S. national security for more than a generation.

The report offers perhaps the most exhaustive accounting and timeline of the breach since it was first publicly disclosed in mid-2015. According to the document, the lax state of OPM’s information security left the agency’s information systems exposed for any experienced hacker to infiltrate and compromise.

“The agency’s senior leadership failed to fully comprehend the extent of the compromise, allowing the hackers to remove manuals and other sensitive materials that essentially provided a roadmap to the OPM IT environment and key users for potential compromise,” the report charges.

Probably the most incisive portion of the assessment is the timeline of major events in the breach, which details a series of miscalculations on the part of the OPM leadership. The analysis paints the picture of a chronic — almost willful — underestimation by senior leadership at OPM about the seriousness of the threat facing the agency, until it was too late.

According to the report, the OPM first learned something was amiss on March 20, 2014, when the US-CERT notified the agency of data being exfiltrated from its network. In the ensuing weeks, OPM worked with US-CERT to implement a strategy to monitor the attackers’ movements to gather counterintelligence.

The only problem with this plan, according to the panel, was that the agency erroneously believed it had cornered the intruder. However, the hacker that OPM and US-CERT had eyes on wasn’t alone. While OPM monitored the first hacker [referred to in the report only as Hacker X1] on May 7, 2014 another hacker posed as an employee of an OPM contractor (Keypoint) performing background investigations. That intruder, referred to as Hacker X2, used the contractor’s OPM credentials to log into the OPM system, install malware and create a backdoor to the network.

As the agency monitored Hacker X1’s movements through the network, the committee found, it noticed hacker X1 was getting dangerously close to the security clearance background information. OPM, in conjunction with DHS, quickly developed a plan to kick Hacker X1 out of its system. It termed this remediation “the Big Bang.” At the time, the agency was confident the planned remediation effort on May 27, 2014 eliminated Hacker X1’s foothold on their systems.

The decision to execute the Big Bang plan was made after OPM observed the attacker load keystroke logging malware onto the workstations of several database administrators, the panel found.

“But Hacker X2, who had successfully established a foothold on OPM’s systems and had not been detected due to gaps in OPM’s security posture, remained in OPM’s systems post-Big Bang,” the report notes.

On June 5, malware was successfully installed on a KeyPoint Web server. After that, X2 moved around OPM’s system until July 29, 2014, when the intruders registered opmlearning.org — a domain the attackers used as a command-and-control center to manage their malware operations.

Beginning in July through August 2014, the Hacker X2 exfiltrated the security clearance background investigation files. Then in December 2014, 4.2 million personnel records were exfiltrated.

On March 3, 2015, wdc-news-post[dot]com was registered by the attackers, who used it as a command-and-control network. On March 26, 2015, the intruders begin stealing fingerprint data. Continue reading →


2
Dec 15

OPM Breach: Credit Monitoring vs. Freeze

Many readers wrote in this past week to say they’d finally been officially notified that their fingerprints, background checks, Social Security numbers, and other sensitive information was jeopardized in the massive data breach discovered this year at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Almost as many complained that the OPM’s response — the offering of free credit monitoring services for up to three years — won’t work if readers have taken my advice and enacted a “security freeze” on one’s credit file with the major credit bureaus. This post is an attempt to explain what’s going on here.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

Earlier this week I got the following message from a reader:

“I just received official notification that I am affected by the OPM data breach. I attempted to sign up for credit monitoring services with the OPM’s contractor ID Experts at opm.myidcare.com, but was denied these services because I have a credit security freeze. I was told by ID Experts that the OPM’s credit monitoring services will not work for accounts with a security freeze.”

The reader continued:

“This supports my decision to issue a security freeze for all my credit accounts, and in my assessment completely undermines the utility and value of the OPM’s credit monitoring services when individuals can simply issue a security freeze. This inability to monitor a person’s credit file when a freeze is in place speaks volumes about the effectiveness of a freeze in blocking anyone — ID protection firms or ID thieves included — from viewing your file.”

I reached out to my followers on Twitter to gauge their reactions to this. I wrote: “Finish this sentence: Lifting a freeze to enable credit monitoring is like….” Here were some of the notable responses:

@sdweberg 10:22pm …shooting your rottweilers and paying the neighbors a monthly fee to “keep an eye on” your house.

@shane_walton 10:15pm …installing flash to watch a flash video about the evils of flash.

@danblondell 10:13pm …leaving the storm doors open to keep an eye on the tornado

@flakpaket 12:48am …leaving your doors and windows unlocked so that burglars can set off your indoor motion sensors.

@ShermanTheDad 8:25am …taking your gun off safety to check and see if it’s loaded.

Removing a security freeze to enable credit monitoring is foolhardy because the freeze offers more comprehensive protection against ID theft. Credit monitoring services are useful for cleaning up your credit file *after* you’re victimized by ID thieves, but they generally do nothing to stop thieves from applying for and opening new lines of credit in your name.

As I discussed at length in this primer, credit monitoring services aren’t really built to prevent ID theft. The most you can hope for from a credit monitoring service is that they give you a heads up when ID theft does happen, and then help you through the often labyrinthine process of getting the credit bureaus and/or creditors to remove the fraudulent activity and to fix your credit score. Continue reading →


2
Sep 15

OPM (Mis)Spends $133M on Credit Monitoring

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has awarded a $133 million contract to a private firm in an effort to provide credit monitoring services for three years to nearly 22 million people who had their Social Security numbers and other sensitive data stolen by cybercriminals. But perhaps the agency should be offering the option to pay for the cost that victims may incur in “freezing” their credit files, a much more effective way of preventing identity theft.

Not long after news broke that Chinese hackers had stolen SSNs and far more sensitive data on 4.2 million individuals — including background investigations, fingerprint data, addresses, medical and mental-health history, and financial history — OPM announced it had awarded a contract worth more than $20 million to Austin, Texas-based identity protection firm CSID to provide 18 months of protection for those affected.

Soon after the CSID contract was awarded, the OPM acknowledged that the breach actually impacted more than five times as many individuals as originally thought. In response, the OPM has awarded a $133 million contract to Portland, Ore. based ID Experts.

No matter how you slice it, $133 million is a staggering figure for a service that in all likelihood will do little to prevent identity thieves from hijacking the names, good credit and good faith of breach victims. While state-sponsored hackers thought to be responsible for this breach were likely interested in the data for more strategic than financial reasons (recruiting, discovering and/or thwarting spies), the OPM should not force breach victims to pay for true protection.

As I’ve noted in story after story, identity protection services like those offered by CSID, Experian and others do little to block identity theft: The most you can hope for from these services is that they will notify you after crooks have opened a new line of credit in your name. Where these services do excel is in helping with the time-consuming and expensive process of cleaning up your credit report with the major credit reporting agencies.

Many of these third party services also induce people to provide even more information than was leaked in the original breach. For example, CSID offers the ability to “monitor thousands of websites, chat rooms, forums and networks, and alerts you if your personal information is being bought or sold online.” But in order to use this service, users are encouraged to provide bank account and credit card data, passport and medical ID numbers, as well as telephone numbers and driver’s license information.

The only step that will reliably block identity thieves from accessing your credit file — and therefore applying for new loans, credit cards and otherwise ruining your good name — is freezing your credit file with the major credit bureaus. This freeze process — described in detail in the primer, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Security Freeze — can be done online or over the phone. Each bureau will give the consumer a unique personal identification number (PIN) that the consumer will need to provide in the event that he needs to apply for new credit in the future.

But there’s a catch: Depending on the state in which you reside, the freeze can cost $5 to $15 per credit bureau. Also, in some states consumers can be charged a fee to temporarily lift the freeze. Continue reading →


15
Jun 15

Catching Up on the OPM Breach

I heard from many readers last week who were curious why I had not weighed in on the massive (and apparently still unfolding) data breach at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Turns out, the easiest way for a reporter to make sure everything hits the fan from a cybersecurity perspective is to take a two week vacation to the other end of the world. What follows is a timeline that helped me get my head on straight about the events that preceded this breach, followed by some analysis and links to other perspectives on the matter.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

July 2014: OPM investigates a breach of its computer networks dating back to March 2014. Authorities trace the intrusion to China. OPM offers employees free credit monitoring and assures employees that no personal data appears to have been stolen.

Aug. 2014: It emerges that USIS, a background check provider for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was hacked. USIS offers 27,000 DHS employees credit monitoring through AllClearID (full disclosure: AllClear is an advertiser on this blog). Investigators say Chinese are hackers responsible, and that the attackers broke in by exploiting a vulnerability in an enterprise management software product from SAP. OPM soon suspends work with USIS.

November 2014: A report (PDF) by OPM’s Office of the Inspector General on the agency’s compliance with Federal Information Security Management Act finds “significant” deficiencies in the department’s IT security. The report found OPM did not maintain a comprehensive inventory of servers, databases and network devices, nor were auditors able to tell if OPM even had a vulnerability scanning program. The audit also found that multi-factor authentication (the use of a token such as a smart card, along with an access code) was not required to access OPM systems. “We believe that the volume and sensitivity of OPM systems that are operating without an active Authorization represents a material weakness in the internal control structure of the agency’s IT security program,” the report concluded.

Dec. 2014: KeyPoint, a company that took over background checks for USIS, suffers breach. OPM states that there is “no conclusive evidence to confirm sensitive information was removed from the system.” OPM vows to notify 48,439 federal workers that their information may have been exposed in the attack.

Feb. 2015: Health insurance giant Anthem discloses breach impacting nearly 80 million customers. Experts later trace domains, IP addresses implicated in attack to Chinese hackers. Anthem offers two years of free credit monitoring services through AllClearID.

May 2015: Premera Blue Cross, one of the insurance carriers that participates in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, discloses a breach affecting 11 million customers. Federal auditors at OPM warned Premera three weeks prior to the breach that its network security procedures were inadequate. Unlike the Anthem breach, the incident at Premera exposes clinical medical information in addition to personally identifiable information. Premera offers two years of free credit monitoring through Experian.

May 2015: Carefirst Blue Cross discloses breach impacting 1.1 million customers. Clues unearthed by researchers point to the same attack infrastructure and methods used in the Anthem and Premera breach. Carefirst offers two years free credit monitoring through Experian.

June 2015: OPM discloses breach affecting up to 4 million federal employees, offers 18 months of free credit monitoring through CSID. Follow-up reports indicate that the breach may extend well beyond federal employees to individuals who applied for security clearances with the federal government.

ANALYSIS

As the OPM’s Inspector General report put it, “attacks like the ones on Anthem and Premera [and OPM] are likely to increase. In these cases, the risk to Federal employees and their families will probably linger long after the free credit monitoring offered by these companies expires.”

That would appear to be the understatement of the year. The OPM runs a little program called e-QIP, which processes applications for security clearances for federal agencies, including top secret and above. This bit, from a July 10, 2014 story in The Washington Post, puts the depth and breadth of this breach in better perspective:

“In those files are huge treasure troves of personal 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 numbers.”

That quote aptly explains why a nation like China might wish to hoover up data from the OPM and a network of healthcare providers that serve federal employees: If you were a state and wished to recruit foreign spies or uncover traitors within your own ranks, what sort of goldmine might this data be? Imagine having access to files that include interviews with a target’s friends and acquaintances over the years, some of whom could well have shared useful information about that person’s character flaws, weaknesses and proclivities.

For its part, China has steadfastly denied involvement. Politico cites a news story from the Chinese news service Xinhua which dismissed the U.S. allegations as “obviously another case of Washington’s habitual slander against Beijing on cybersecurity.” Continue reading →


8
Jun 15

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Security Freeze

If you’ve been paying attention in recent years, you might have noticed that just about everyone is losing your personal data. Even if you haven’t noticed (or maybe you just haven’t actually received a breach notice), I’m here to tell you that if you’re an American, your basic personal data is already for sale. What follows is a primer on what you can do to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft as a result of all this data (s)pillage.

Click here for a primer on identity theft protection services.

Click here for a primer on identity theft protection services.

A seemingly never-ending stream of breaches at banks, healthcare providers, insurance companies and data brokers has created a robust market for thieves who sell identity data. Even without the help of mega breaches like the 80 million identities leaked in the Anthem compromise or last week’s news about 4 million records from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management gone missing, crooks already have access to the information needed to open new lines of credit or file phony tax refund requests in your name.

If your response to this breachapalooza is to do what each of the breached organizations suggest — to take them up on one or two years’ worth of free credit monitoring services — you might sleep better at night but you will probably not be any more protected against crooks stealing your identity. As I discussed at length in this primer, credit monitoring services aren’t really built to prevent ID theft. The most you can hope for from a credit monitoring service is that they give you a heads up when ID theft does happen, and then help you through the often labyrinthine process of getting the credit bureaus and/or creditors to remove the fraudulent activity and to fix your credit score.

In short, if you have already been victimized by identity theft (fraud involving existing credit or debit cards is not identity theft), it might be worth paying for these credit monitoring and repair services (although more than likely, you are already eligible for free coverage thanks to a recent breach at any one of dozens of companies that have lost your information over the past year). Otherwise, I’d strongly advise you to consider freezing your credit file at the major credit bureaus. 

There is shockingly little public knowledge or education about the benefits of a security freeze, also known as a “credit freeze.” I routinely do public speaking engagements in front of bankers and other experts in the financial industry, and I’m amazed at how often I hear from people in this community who are puzzled to learn that there is even such a thing as a security freeze (to be fair, most of these people are in the business of opening new lines of credit, not blocking such activity).

Also, there is a great deal of misinformation and/or bad information about security freezes available online. As such, I thought it best to approach this subject in the form of a Q&A, which is the most direct method I know how to impart knowledge about a subject in way that is easy for readers to digest.

Q: What is a security freeze?

A: A security freeze essentially blocks any potential creditors from being able to view or “pull” your credit file, unless you affirmatively unfreeze or thaw your file beforehand. With a freeze in place on your credit file, ID thieves can apply for credit in your name all they want, but they will not succeed in getting new lines of credit in your name because few if any creditors will extend that credit without first being able to gauge how risky it is to loan to you (i.e., view your credit file). And because each credit inquiry caused by a creditor has the potential to lower your credit score, the freeze also helps protect your score, which is what most lenders use to decide whether to grant you credit when you truly do want it and apply for it. 

Q: What’s involved in freezing my credit file?

A: Freezing your credit involves notifying each of the major credit bureaus that you wish to place a freeze on your credit file. This can usually be done online, but in a few cases you may need to contact one or more credit bureaus by phone or in writing. Once you complete the application process, each bureau will provide a unique personal identification number (PIN) that you can use to unfreeze or “thaw” your credit file in the event that you need to apply for new lines of credit sometime in the future. Depending on your state of residence and your circumstances, you may also have to pay a small fee to place a freeze at each bureau. There are four consumer credit bureaus, including Equifax, Experian, Innovis and Trans Union

Q: How much is the fee, and how can I know whether I have to pay it?

A: The fee ranges from $0 to $15 per bureau, meaning that it can cost upwards of $60 to place a freeze at all four credit bureaus (recommended). However, in most states, consumers can freeze their credit file for free at each of the major credit bureaus if they also supply a copy of a police report and in some cases an affidavit stating that the filer believes he/she is or is likely to be the victim of identity theft. In many states, that police report can be filed and obtained online. The fee covers a freeze as long as the consumer keeps it in place. Equifax has a decent breakdown of the state laws and freeze fees/requirements. Continue reading →