OPM Admits Breach Had Wider Reach: 25.7 Million Americans at Risk

After weeks of speculation, the U.S. Government Office of Personnel Management discloses the full impact of the breaches on its systems.

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OPM hack

After weeks of speculation that the data breach of the U.S Office of Personnel Management's systems affected more people than was initially disclosed, OPM publicly admitted on July 9 that an additional 21.5 million Americans were indeed impacted.

OPM first disclosed on June 4 that it had been breached, though initially the U.S government agency said that only approximately 4.2 million Americans were impacted. The new breach disclosure brings the total number of those whose data has been stolen from OPM up to 25.7 million.

According to OPM, the agency was breached twice, though the two incidents are related. The first incident, in which 4.2 million Americans were impacted, compromised the personnel system, which includes information on both current and former U.S federal employees. The second data breach of 21.5 million people compromised OPM's background investigation databases. The 21.5 million figure includes 19.7 million individuals who had applications in the system for background investigation as well as 1.8 million nonapplicants that OPM has identified as being mostly spouses or cohabitants of applicants.

OPM had announced on June 29 that it was shutting down the its Web-based e-QIP system for doing background checks on potential employees.

"Since learning of the incident affecting background investigation records, OPM and the interagency incident response team have moved swiftly and thoroughly to assess the breach, analyze what data may have been stolen, and identify those individuals who may be affected," OPM noted in a statement.

The types of information stolen from the background check databases include Social Security numbers; residency and educational history; employment history; information about immediate family and other personal and business acquaintances; and health, criminal and financial history. OPM stated that usernames and passwords that background investigation applicants used to fill out their background investigation forms were also stolen.

In response to the breach, OPM is pledging to improve its IT cyber-security posture, working in partnership with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. The agency has already outlined a multistep plan in a Cybersecurity Action Report released in June to improve security.

The Cybersecurity Action Report plan includes the deployment of strong two-factor authentication and restricting remote access for network administration functions. OPM is also creating a 24/7 security operations center as well as continuous monitoring capabilities.

From a tools perspective, OPM's plan is to deploy new software and hardware tools including more firewalls and improved anti-malware software.

"OPM continues to deploy additional security tools to improve its cybersecurity posture, including tools that mask and redact data," OPM stated.

In particular, one area of focus for OPM is encrypting its databases to limit the risk of any future data leakage. The Cybersecurity Action Report plan includes a direction for OPM to review all of its databases to see where encryption can be extended. The database encryption review is set to be completed by July 15.

"OPM stores more Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and other sensitive records than almost any other Federal agency," OPM states in the Cybersecurity Action Report. "This is a tremendous trust placed in the agency by the millions of current and former Federal employees, and one that OPM must continually earn through constant vigilance."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.