OPM Shuts Down Background Checks After Breach

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management is still reeling after publicly acknowledging earlier this month that it was breached in an attack that may have exposed personal information on 18 million Americans.

OPM breach

The fallout from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) breach that was first publicly disclosed on June 4 is continuing to ripple through the U.S. government's IT infrastructure. On June 29, the OPM announced that it is shutting down its Web-based e-QIP system for doing background checks on potential employees.

The shutdown of the e-QIP system is a result of a vulnerability that was identified by the OPM after it began a comprehensive review of its technology infrastructure. The OPM stated that it has no evidence that the vulnerability in the e-QIP system has been exploited.

"The security of OPM's networks remains my top priority as we continue the work outlined in my IT Strategic Plan, including the continuing implementation of modern security controls," OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said in a statement. "This proactive, temporary suspension of the e-QIP system will ensure our network is as secure as possible for the sensitive data with which OPM is entrusted."

Initially it was reported that the OPM breach impacted 4 million U.S. federal workers, a number that has since expanded to 14 million.

Security experts contacted by eWEEK were not surprised by the OPM's decision to shut down one of its systems after detecting the vulnerability.

"The decision to pull any production system offline in the event of a cyber-attack is always a tough one," JD Sherry, CEO of Cavirin Systems, told eWEEK. "Typically, it is always a best practice to leave systems running during a cyber-forensic investigation so you can truly capture the evidence required to determine the overall attack signature and impact."

Attackers' tools and tactics can often vanish if a system is restarted, making it difficult for investigators to piece together the true impact of the breach of one or more systems, according to Sherry.

Andy Hayter, security evangelist at G Data Software, said it's not shocking that in the days following the initial discovery of the OPM breach, other severe and potentially damaging vulnerabilities have been uncovered, causing the OPM to temporarily shut down its background checking system.

"While it is safer to take the system offline to rectify the situation, it demonstrates an ongoing lack of security preparedness at the OPM and possibly other federal government agencies," Hayter told eWEEK. "Is this too little, too late? Yes. With a huge number of OPM records already exposed and possibly exfiltrated to nation-state attackers, the OPM is clearly in scramble mode, trying to desperately protect against the loss of even more personally identifiable information [PII]."

Sherry said it is likely that the decision to take systems offline at the OPM came with great consternation, since the outcome creates a significant backlog to the background check process.

"This ultimately slows our ability to execute on national security matters," he said.

From a technology standpoint, Sherry noted that virtualization and cloud platforms allow for better quarantine of systems and forensic capture while the production systems remain online.

"The timeline for the application being offline could very well be the effort required to rebuild new infrastructure from scratch or restore to the last known good state prior to the breach occurring," he said.

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.