from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

The OPM Hack: Weighing the Damage to U.S. Intelligence

CIA Net Politics CFR OPM Hack China

June 26, 2015

CIA Net Politics CFR OPM Hack China
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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I finally got my letter from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). What a relief. I was worried my credibility as a commentator would be damaged if my data wasn’t stolen. Imagine how Dan Rather would have felt had he not received Anthrax.

In any case, in the weeks since the story broke, OPM has yet to change their story. The official number is still 4.2 million and the data that was lost is still, according to my letter, “your name, social security number, date and place of birth, and current or former address.” News outlets, however, are putting the number as high as 18 million and are reporting that the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (EQIP) system that contains information collected on form SF-86 was compromised. That would be worse than just the loss of employee personally identifiable information. It would include information on employees and contractors as well as their friends and families.

Ian Bremmer is worried about the impact on U.S. human intelligence. He even posted a comment on CFR’s Facebook page about it in response to my last piece. I’m not as concerned. Here’s why:

1. We know about it

Intelligence is about decision advantage and relative gains. If the Chinese had stolen this information without us finding out, we would be truly screwed. It might take us years to piece together why they seemed to have so much more information on us. But this is a GI Joe moment: knowing is half the battle. Because we know what they took we can mitigate the losses. Who knows, we might even find a way to use it to our advantage. Welcome to the wilderness of mirrors.

2. The CIA is pretty good at what they do

The big concern is that the information stolen from OPM could be used to identify U.S. intelligence operatives and the people they meet with. Under this theory, being bandied about in the blogosphere, if the Chinese had a complete list of all federal employees, including those who work at the State Department but excluding those who work in the intelligence community, they could identify CIA case officers under official cover who don’t have State Department employment records and didn’t fill out SF-86s with OPM. If the Chinese then knew which of their officials were meeting with these case officers, they could roll up our network in China.

That’s a pretty scary scenario. Is it true? I don’t know. I have a lot of respect for the CIA. It’s filled with smart, dedicated public servants that are the best in the world at what they do. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, the CIA protects more than its sources and methods. If it’s really possible that China now owns our human intelligence network, that’s really bad. But let me take General Hayden’s comment a step further. If it is indeed true that CIA case officer covers’ could be blown by hacking into an OPM database, it’s not shame on China and it’s not even shame on OPM; it’s shame on CIA.  Anything that the twitterati can figure out in a week is something CIA counterintelligence should have addressed long ago. This kind of data is the digital equivalent of pocket litter.

Again, I don’t think we are giving the CIA enough credit here, but if it’s true, the harm can be mitigated since we know what data was lost. It might mean a lot of case officers will be riding desk duty for the rest of their careers. Luckily, this data couldn’t expose any No Official Cover case officers. We will end up relying more on signals intelligence and open source intelligence. Who knows, it might even lead to more work for the Eurasia Group. In short, we can manage the losses.

3. Password resets were already weak

The data could certainly be used for password reset. Even more advanced systems that don’t rely on answers the user provides but pull data from public records could be accessed with the information in the SF-86. But let’s not pretend that password systems were secure before this data was lost. We’ve needed to kill off the password for twenty years. The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace is aimed at doing just that. Most major consumer online services are now offering two-factor authentication. I’ve never run into an online password reset process at a Federal agency for anything critical, but any system using them should put stronger controls in place.

4. Spearphishing is already pretty effective

Could the information be used to target spearphishing e-mails? Sure, when targeting someone with a spearphishing e-mail, the more information, the better. On the other hand, spearphishing is already pretty effective—it’s the threat vector for most significant cyber incidents and LinkedIn and Facebook make it pretty easy. It’s also a problem that some companies are effectively managing through a combination of user training (PhishMe, Wombat Security) and next generation threat detection (Palo Alto Networks, Fidelis, FireEye). At most, access to this data will make a bad problem worse.

5. Blackmail is an overstated threat

There are too many would-be spy novelists in Washington, D.C. conjuring up fanciful scenarios in which information in the EQIP database could be used to blackmail government employees. There are two things to keep in mind when considering blackmail scenarios.

First, there are very few known cases in which blackmail was involved in getting government employees to give up classified information. As far as we know, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were both motivated politically. Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen were both financially motivated. The lone case I am aware of in which blackmail was involved since World War II was that of Clayton Lonetree, a Marine stationed at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The details of Lonetree’s case make for fun reading—he was seduced by a KGB agent named “Violetta Seina” and caught in a honeypot. But the harm he did was, according to the then-commandant of the Marine Corps, “minimal.” He was released from prison after serving only nine years.

Second, one of the main policy justifications for the security clearance process is to mitigate the possibility of blackmail. In part, by collecting the information, the Federal government ensures that foreign spies can’t threaten clearance holders’ jobs with it. Let’s say you admit to past drug use on your SF-86. If you are still granted a clearance, no one can threaten to tell the government about your past drug use.

While the clearance process does capture information on finances and even romantic affairs, problems in these areas quickly get your application rejected. There is no benefit of the doubt. With about 5.5 million clearance holders today, the system most certainly isn’t infallible. But a foreign intelligence agency is going to have a much harder time identifying cases where security investigators made a mistake than the U.S. government in what I am guessing is a massive review currently underway.

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