What You Need to Know About the US Government's Massive Data Breach

In June 2015, US officials announced that 4 million current and former federal employees may have had their personal information stolen by hackers. It is believed that the legislative and executive branches of the government were not breached. Uniformed military personnel were also unaffected. However, the list of potential victims included workers from nearly every major government agency.

The incident is one of the largest data breaches ever faced by the US government. Computers at both the Department of the Interior and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) were hit in the attack. The latter agency handles the overwhelming majority of all federal background checks, and therefore has a huge amount of information on government employees. As a result, the data breach affects practically all of the federal government.

Authorities are still attempting to determine how the hackers managed to breach the government's computer systems. Since the investigation is currently ongoing, the number of victims may rise in the coming months. The OPM is offering credit monitoring and identity theft insurance for 18 months to people who may have been affected by the attack. The government has warned all potential victims to get new credit reports and keep a close watch on their financial statements.

A History of Similar Cyber Attacks

Investigators believe that Beijing is behind the attack. A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington called the allegations irresponsible and counterproductive. However, this is the second time in less than a year that China has been linked to a cyber attack against the OPM.

In July 2014, The New York Times revealed that hackers had broken into several databases at the OPM. The Department of Homeland Security confirmed the attack, but added that the culprits had not managed to steal any personally identifiable information. According to the Times, a senior US official said that the attackers were based in China.

Beijing has been tied to several high-profile attacks against major American organisations, particularly those in the healthcare industry. Specifically, cyber security professionals have linked it to a large-scale data breach at Anthem Inc., one of the leading health insurers in the US. Anthem announced in February 2015 that hackers had stolen a huge amount of files from one of the company's databases. While the exact number of victims was not disclosed, the database contained the records of up to 80 million customers. The cyber intelligence firm iSight Partners has gone one step further by connecting the Anthem attack to the OPM data breach.

The recent attack against the federal government's computers comes on the heels of another major data breach at a US agency. In May 2015, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) revealed that hackers had manipulated a tool on the agency's website in order to steal the records of over 100,000 people. The stolen information was used to file fraudulent tax returns. The IRS sent out nearly $50 million in refunds before it detected the data breach.

How Hackers Use Stolen Personal Information

As the IRS attack shows, stolen personal records are incredibly valuable. Hackers can use this information to file fraudulent tax returns or perform other types of identity theft. As one example, criminals use personal data to get past security questions linked to their targets' online accounts. They also secure loans and apply for credit cards in the names of their victims.

Hackers also use this information for spear-phishing campaigns. After targeting a victim, a hacker using spear-phishing techniques will create an email carefully tailored to fool the target into downloading a malware-infected attachment or clicking on a link to a malicious website. After the victim does so, the hacker will be able to gain access to their computer. The OPM breach is especially devastating when viewed in this light. If a hacker targeted the right federal employee, then they could end up with a substantial amount of confidential government files.

How You Can Protect Your Data

The hackers behind these attacks have shown that they are capable of getting past high-level cyber security measures. These attacks should serve as a wake-up call to organisations throughout the world: you cannot be lax about your cyber security.

Check with your IT staff or service provider about the status of your cyber security efforts. You should be using comprehensive anti-malware and intrusion detection measures. Similarly, multi-factor authentication tools can keep your accounts secure, while access control tools can help you enforce your network security policies.

A solid cyber security strategy also calls for contingency planning. In order to prepare for the worst, you'll need a data backup plan. Frequently creating backup copies of your databases means that an attack won't leave you without a large amount of your files. By the same token, documenting a detailed disaster recovery plan ensures that your employees will always know what to do when reacting to a data breach.

With the help of experienced IT professionals, you can improve every facet of your cyber security efforts. When protecting your data, these partnerships can make all the difference.

About the Author

Geoff Stewart is a highly experienced and skilled Technology Director at Surety IT. His knowledge is based on years of industry experience having created customised, stable, well performing systems both for multi-national companies in the UK and Australia and Surety IT customers.

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