Shhh… US Government Hacks at OPM Exposed More Than 21Million People

It was much worse than previously reported: more than 21 million people were “swept up in a colossal breach of government computer systems that was far more damaging than initially thought”. Find out more from the New York Times.

Shhh… Hackers Target Database of Chinese with Ties to US Government

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.

Shhh… Latest Cyberattacks on US Government a Hoax – To Restore NSA Surveillance?

You may have read and heard about the latest cyberattacks on the US government (see video above) over the weekend? Reckon you can’t help wondering how coincidental this “incident” was, judging by the following Guardian article. Nice strategy, Congress??

Shhh… USA Freedom Act Fails Again – Senators Reject Bill to Scrap NSA Bulk Collection

And check out the following Guardian article below:

USA Freedom Act fails as senators reject bill to scrap NSA bulk collection

Ben Jacobs and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington and Spencer Ackerman in New York
Saturday 23 May 2015 05.46 BST

Bill fails for the second time after vote in the small hours of Saturday morning, but Rand Paul thwarts Republican leaders’ attempts to extend Patriot Act

For the second time in less than a year, US senators rejected a bill to abolish the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of American phone records.

By a vote of 57-42, the USA Freedom Act failed on Friday to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance in the Senate after hours of procedural manoeuvering lasted into the small hours Saturday morning.

The result left the Senate due to reconvene on May 31, just hours before a wellspring of broad NSA and FBI domestic spying powers will expire at midnight.

Architects of the USA Freedom Act had hoped that the expiration at the end of May of the Patriot Act authorities, known as Section 215, provided them sufficient leverage to undo the defeat of 2014 and push their bill over the line.

The bill was a compromise to limit the scope of government surveillance. It traded the end of NSA bulk surveillance for the retention through 2019 of Section 215, which permits the collection of “business records” outside normal warrant and subpoena channels – as well as a massive amount of US communications metadata, according to a justice department report.

Although the bill passed the House of Representatives by a massive 338-88 margin last week, it was unable to overcome concerns from Republicans about the process of letting telecom companies take responsibility about the collection data from the NSA.

Republican leadership was hoping for a short-term extension of the Patriot Act which would push debate into early June, once the Senate returns from its Memorial Day recess.

This was considered far more likely than a two-month extension of the legislation, which was considered a forlorn hope and failed by a 45-54 vote shortly after the USA Freedom Act failed to reach cloture on Saturday morning.

Nevada Republican Dean Heller, a co-sponsor of the bill, told reporters early on Friday: “We’re losing the ‘politics of going home’ argument with our conference.”

He added that proponents of a short term extension were able to argue that supporting the bill meant staying on Capitol Hill all week. “So how do you win that argument?” Heller said.

The answer was by making senators stay regardless of how they voted as Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, a virulent opponent of NSA surveillance, torpedoed any attempt to kick the can down the road.

On Saturday morning, after both cloture votes failed, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell asked for unanimous consent to extend the Patriot Act for a week. Paul objected. Objections were then heard from Paul, as well as from Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich on four-day, two-day and one-day extensions. Eventually McConnell gave up and announced that the Senate would adjourn until 31 May, the day before the key provisions of the Patriot Act expire.

The failure of the USA Freedom Act leaves the Senate in an impasse.

Republican whip John Cornyn, a strident supporter of extending the Patriot Act, divided the Senate into three groups on Friday.

As he put it, there are those who want a “straight extension, those who like USA Freedom and those who like nothing”.

Those who want a straight extension of the Patriot Act are in a distinct minority and supporters of the USA Freedom Act still cannot muster the necessary super majority to advance the bill. The result means those who are more than happy to simply let Section 215 expire on May 31 are in the driver’s seat.

When reporters asked Paul on Saturday morning whether he was concerned about the provisions of the Patriot Act expiring at the end of the month, the Kentucky Republican seemed unworried “We were liking the constitution for about 200 years and I think we could rely on the constitution.”

There still is some room for compromise. Arizona Republican John McCain, when asked if the USA Freedom Act was better than a lapse, said: “There are some programs that are affected by ‘Freedom USA’ that I would be very concerned about shutting down.” He added “but obviously anything is better than shutting down the whole operation.”

McCain also noted that “you can argue whether we should be doing the mega data thing but you can’t argue that it’s a good idea to shut down the whole thing.”

However, that shouldn’t be seen as any sort of endorsement of the NSA reform bill by hawks in Senate GOP caucus. Representative Tom Massie, a Kentucky Republican who came to the Senate floor to witness the vote Saturday morning, told reporters he was surprised at how strongly many of his fellow Republicans felt about the compromise reform bill. “They really don’t like the Freedom Act,” he said.

In the meantime, barring a breakthrough in the coming days, “the whole operation may be shutdown regardless” as the May 31 deadline looms closer.

Mitch McConnell may still be majority leader but for now, it’s Rand Paul’s Senate.

Shhh… US Congress on Track to End NSA's Bulk Phone Collection Program?

The House overwhelmingly approved Wednesday legislation to end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records. Are you counting on it? I’m not as it’s highly likely secret “alternatives” have already been paved to have the NSA continue business as usual…

Shhh… Anonymous: CyberSecurity Bill's a Scam

The article below sums it up nicely: the Protecting Cyber Networks Act passed by the Congress this week was a surveillance bill in disguise.

Check out this video by the Anonymous:

House of Representatives Passes Cybersecurity Bills Without Fixing Core Problems

April 22, 2015 | By Mark Jaycox

The House passed two cybersecurity “information sharing” bills today: the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s Protecting Cyber Networks Act, and the House Homeland Security Committee’s National Cybersecurity Protection Advancement Act. Both bills will be “conferenced” to create one bill and then sent to the Senate for advancement. EFF opposed both bills and has been urging users to tell Congress to vote against them.

The bills are not cybersecurity “information sharing” bills, but surveillance bills in disguise. Like other bills we’ve opposed during the last five years, they authorize more private sector spying under new legal immunity provisions and use vague definitions that aren’t carefully limited to protect privacy. The bills further facilitate companies’ sharing even more of our personal information with the NSA and some even allow companies to “hack back” against potentially innocent users.

As we’ve noted before, information sharing is not a silver bullet to stopping security failures. Companies can already share the necessary technical information to stop threats via Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs), public reports, private communications, and the DHS’s Enhanced Cybersecurity Services.

While we are disappointed in the House, we look forward to the fight in the Senate where equally dangerous bills, like the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, have failed to pass every year since 2010.

Contact your Senator now to oppose the Senate bills.

Shhh… The Protecting Cyber Networks Act Gets Greenlight from Congress

Time to brace up for further loss of privacy as the PCNA would amount to voluntary wholesale transfer of data to the NSA (see story below).

And the Congress actually believe it’s in the name of stopping hackers and cyber attacks?

House Passes Cybersecurity Bill Despite Privacy Protests

Andy Greenberg
04.22.15

Congress is hellbent on passing a cybersecurity bill that can stop the wave of hacker breaches hitting American corporations. And they’re not letting the protests of a few dozen privacy and civil liberties organizations get in their way.

On Wednesday the House of Representatives voted 307-116 to pass the Protecting Cyber Networks Act, a bill designed to allow more fluid sharing of cybersecurity threat data between corporations and government agencies. That new system for sharing information is designed to act as a real-time immune system against hacker attacks, allowing companies to warn one another via government intermediaries about the tools and techniques of advanced hackers. But privacy critics say it also threatens to open up a new backchannel for surveillance of American citizens, in some cases granting the same companies legal immunity to share their users’ private data with government agencies that include the NSA.

“PCNA would significantly increase the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) access to personal information, and authorize the federal government to use that information for a myriad of purposes unrelated to cybersecurity,” reads a letter signed earlier this week by 55 civil liberties groups and security experts that includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch and many others.

“The revelations of the past two years concerning the intelligence community’s abuses of surveillance authorities and the scope of its collection and use of individuals’ information demonstrates the potential for government overreach, particularly when statutory language is broad or ambiguous,” the letter continues. “[PCNA] fails to provide strong privacy protections or adequate clarity about what actions can be taken, what information can be shared, and how that information may be used by the government.”

Specifically, PCNA’s data-sharing privileges let companies give data to government agencies—including the NSA—that might otherwise have violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act or the Wiretap Act, both of which restrict the sharing of users’ private data with the government. And PCNA doesn’t even restrict the use of that shared information to cybersecurity purposes; its text also allows the information to be used for investigating any potential threat of “bodily harm or death,” opening its application to the surveillance of run-of-the-mill violent crimes like robbery and carjacking.

Congressman Adam Schiff, who led the advocacy for the bill on the House floor, argued in a statement to reporters that PCNA in fact supports privacy by protecting Americans from future hacker breaches. “We do this while recognizing the huge and growing threat cyber hacking and cyber espionage poses to our privacy, as well as to our financial wellbeing and our jobs,” he writes.

“In the process of drafting this bill, protecting privacy was at the forefront throughout, and we consulted extensively with privacy and civil liberties groups, incorporating their suggestions in many cases. This is a strong bill that protects privacy, and one that I expect will get even better as the process goes forward—we expect to see large bipartisan support on the Floor.”

Here’s a video [above] of Schiff’s statement on the House floor.

PCNA does include some significant privacy safeguards, such as a requirement that companies scrub “unrelated” data of personally identifying information before sending it to the government, and that the government agencies pass it through another filter to delete such data after receiving it.

But those protections still don’t go far enough, says Robyn Greene, policy counsel for the Open Technology Institute. Any information considered a “threat indicator” could still legally be sent to the government—even, for instance, IP address innocent victims of botnets used in distributed denial of service attacks against corporate websites. No further amendments that might have added new privacy restrictions to the bill were considered before the House’s vote Wednesday. “I’m very disappointed that the house has passed an information sharing bill that does so much to threaten Americans’ privacy and civil liberties, and no real effort was made to address the problems the bill still had,” says Greene. “The rules committee has excluded amendments that would have resolved privacy concerns…This is little more than a backdoor for general purpose surveillance.”

In a surprise move yesterday, the White House also publicly backed PCNA and its Senate counterpart, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act in a statement to press. That’s a reversal of its threat to veto a similar Cybersecurity Information Sharing and Protection Ac in 2013 over privacy concerns, a decision that all but killed the earlier attempt at cybersecurity data sharing legislation. Since then, however, a string of high-profile breaches seems to have swayed President Obama’s thinking, from the cybercriminal breaches of Target and health insurer Anthem that spilled millions of users’ data, to the devastating hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which the FBI has claimed was perpetrated as an intimidation tactic by the North Korean government to prevent the release of its Kim Jong-un assassination comedy the Interview.

If the White House’s support stands, it now leaves only an upcoming Senate vote sometime later this month on the Senate’s CISA as the deciding factor as to whether it and PCNA are combined to become law.

But privacy advocates haven’t given up on a presidential veto. A new website called StopCyberspying.com launched by the internet freedom group Access, along with the EFF, the ACLU and others, includes a petition to the President to reconsider a veto for PCNA, CISA and any other bill that threatens to widen internet surveillance.

OTI’s Greene says she’s still banking on a change of heart from Obama, too. “We’re hopeful that the administration would veto any bill that doesn’t address these issues,” she says. “To sign a bill that resembles CISA or PCNA would represent the administration doing a complete 180 on its commitment to protect Americans’ privacy.”