OPM Says Far More Fingerprint Data Stolen Than First Reported

Five times as many fingerprints than initially reported are now thought to have been stolen in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management security breach.

OPM fingerprint theft

Months after the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) first disclosed that it was the victim of a data breach, the details about its full extent are still coming out.

In June, OPM first reported that the breach affected approximately 4 million current and former federal employees. In July, OPM dramatically revised the impact upward to 25.7 million, across two separate data breaches. The second breach involved 21.5 million Americans and initially was reported to include 1.1 million fingerprints. On Sept. 23, OPM revised the fingerprint data loss to approximately 5.6 million.

Although more fingerprint data was stolen than originally reported, OPM noted that the revised figure for fingerprints does not increase the overall estimate of 21.5 million Americans that were affected in the second breach.

"Federal experts believe that, as of now, the ability to misuse fingerprint data is limited," OPM stated. "However, this probability could change over time as technology evolves." There is now an inter-agency working group, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense that will be looking at how the fingerprint data could be used by attackers.

Security industry executives eWEEK spoke with are concerned about the additional risk the loss of fingerprint information represents.

Darren Guccione, CEO and co-founder of Keeper Security, commented that fingerprints are the most common form of biometric authentication. "Fingerprint ID is commonly used to record and authenticate activities, such as employee work hours as well as access to sensitive networks, devices and security systems," Guccione told eWEEK. "Stolen fingerprint data can potentially be replicated and used to attack the victims of the breach or the government itself."

The identity theft, in the case of the OPM breach, was pervasive, covering employee names, Social Security numbers, addresses and fingerprint biometrics, Guccione said. That information is very useful, especially in the aggregate, to engage in future breaches against specific individuals' credit and financial accounts, he added.

Matthew Devost, FusionX CEO, noted that the new OPM breach details expose the fact that biometrics were stolen on a large scale. The use of biometrics represents a particular challenge in that, unlike passwords or encryption certifications, biometrics are non-revocable, he said.

"A user can change their password, but they can't change their fingerprint," Devost told eWEEK. "Perhaps those impacted by the OPM breach who still want to use biometrics to unlock their smartphone or their house will have to start using their big toe."

Overall, the latest disclosure in the OPM breach investigation is unlikely to be the last update as more detail may still emerge, security experts said.

While OPM should have had enough time to complete the investigation by now, this phase may not be fully complete, and there could be further disclosure that that additional systems were compromised, which could lead to more types or amounts of data being exposed, said Jake Kouns, chief information security officer of Risk Based Security.

"From the very beginning, the OPM data breach has not been handled very well from an outsider point of view with a lot of conflicting information, and it is very hard to believe we know all that we need to about the breach at this point," Kouns told eWEEK.

Paul Kurtz, CEO of TruStar Technologies, is also not surprised that more details are continuing to emerge from the OPM breach. A report in July alleged that the same group of attackers that hit OPM are also behind attacks on health insurance provider Anthem, as well as United Airlines.

"Given the apparent scope of the attack against OPM, airlines and health insurance companies, we should not be surprised to learn of additional disclosures regarding this Orwellian plot," Kurtz said. "The fact that we continue to have additional disclosures underscores the critical need to rapidly share data about incidents among enterprises to prevent additional attacks. Until we do so, we will continue to see a stream of serious breaches."

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.