Check out the NYT article below.
Hackers May Have Obtained Names of Chinese With Ties to U.S. Government
By DAVID E. SANGER and JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVISJUNE 10, 2015
WASHINGTON — Investigators say that the Chinese hackers who attacked the databases of the Office of Personnel Management may have obtained the names of Chinese relatives, friends and frequent associates of American diplomats and other government officials, information that Beijing could use for blackmail or retaliation.
Federal employees who handle national security information are required to list some or all of their foreign contacts, depending on the agency, to receive high-level clearances. Investigators say that the hackers obtained many of the lists, and they are trying to determine how many of those thousands of names were compromised.
In classified briefings to members of Congress in recent days, intelligence officials have described what appears to be a systematic Chinese effort to build databases that explain the inner workings of the United States government. The information includes friends and relatives, around the world, of diplomats, of White House officials and of officials from government agencies, like nuclear experts and trade negotiators.
“They are pumping this through their databases just as the N.S.A. pumps telephone data through their databases,” said James Lewis, a cyberexpert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It gives the Chinese the ability to exploit who is listed as a foreign contact. And if you are a Chinese person who didn’t report your contacts or relationships with an American, you may have a problem.”
Officials have conceded in the briefings that most of the compromised data was not encrypted, though they have argued that the attacks were so sophisticated and well hidden that encryption might have done little good.
The first attack, which began at the end of 2013 and was disclosed in the middle of last year, was aimed at the databases used by investigators who conduct security reviews. The investigators worked for a contracting firm on behalf of the Office of Personnel Management, and the firm was fired in August.
The broader attack on the personnel office’s main databases followed in December. That attack, announced last week, involved the records of more than four million current and former federal employees, most of whom have no security clearances.
White House and personnel office officials have provided few details about the latest breach. But the Department of Homeland Security has been telling outside experts and members of Congress that it regards the detection of the attack as a success, because it made use of new “signatures” of foreign hackers, based on characteristics of computer code, to find the attack.
In a statement, the personnel office said Wednesday that “it was because of these new enhancements to our IT systems that O.P.M. was able to identify these intrusions.” But the detection happened in April, five months after the attack began.
The list of relatives and “close or continuous contacts” is a standard part of the forms and interviews required of American officials every five years for top-secret and other high-level clearances, and government officials consider the lists to be especially delicate.
In 2010, when The New York Times was preparing to publish articles based on 250,000 secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks, the newspaper complied with a request by the department to redact the names of any Chinese citizens who were described in the cables as providing information to American Embassy officials. Officials cited fear of retaliation by the Chinese authorities.
Officials say they do not know how much of the compromised data was exposed to the Chinese hackers. While State Department employees, especially new ones, are required to list all their foreign friends, diplomats have so many foreign contacts that they are not expected to list them all.
But other government officials are frequently asked to do so, especially in interviews with investigators. The notes from those interviews, conducted by a spinoff of the personnel office called the United States Investigative Service, were obtained by hackers in the earlier episode last year.
Intelligence agencies use a different system, so the contacts of operatives like those in the C.I.A. were not in the databases.
But the standard form that anyone with a national security job fills out includes information about spouses, divorces and even distant foreign relatives, as well as the names of current or past foreign girlfriends and boyfriends, bankruptcies, debts and other financial information. And it appears that the hackers reached, and presumably downloaded, images of those forms.
“I can’t say whether this was more damaging than WikiLeaks; it’s different in nature,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which was briefed by intelligence officials, the Department of Homeland Security and the personnel office on Tuesday. Mr. Schiff, who declined to speak about the specifics of the briefing, added, “But it is certainly one of the most damaging losses I can think of.”
Investigators were surprised to find that the personnel office, which had already been so heavily criticized for lax security that its inspector general wanted parts of the system shut down, did not encrypt any of the most sensitive data.
The damage was not limited to information about China, though that presumably would have been of most interest to the hackers. They are likely to be particularly interested in the contacts of Energy Department officials who work on nuclear weapons or nuclear intelligence, Commerce Department or trade officials working on delicate issues like the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and, of course, White House officials.
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine on both the Intelligence Committee and the Armed Services Committee, called for the United States to retaliate for these kinds of losses. “Nation-states need to know that if they attack us this way, something bad is going to happen to their cyberinfrastructure,” he said.
But Mr. King said he could not say if the attacks on the personnel office were state-sponsored, adding, “I have to be careful; I can’t confirm the identity of the entity behind the attack.” The Obama administration has not formally named China, but there has been no effort to hide the attribution in the classified hearings.
The scope of the breach is remarkable, experts say, because the personnel office apparently learned little from earlier government data breaches like the WikiLeaks case and the surveillance revelations by Edward J. Snowden, both of which involved unencrypted data.
President Obama has said he regards the threat of cyberintrusions as a persistent challenge in a world in which both state and nonstate actors “are sending everything they’ve got at trying to breach these systems.”
The problem “is going to accelerate, and that means that we have to be as nimble, as aggressive and as well resourced as those who are trying to break into these systems,” he said at a news conference this week.
The White House has stopped short of blaming Katherine Archuleta, the director of the personnel office, for the breach, emphasizing that securing government computer systems is a challenging task.
Correction: June 10, 2015
An earlier version of a photo caption with this article misstated the name of the federal office building where employees handle national security information are required to list their foreign contacts. It is the Office of Personnel Management building, not Office of Personal Management.
Matt Apuzzo contributed reporting.