A week ago, Russian "crime syndicates" were blamed when the IRS announced that a "major cyber breach allowed criminals to steal the tax returns of more than 100,000 people." Today, it is China's turn to be blamed following a report that the FBI is probing what has been described as "one of the largest thefts of government data ever seen."
The alleged penetration by Chinese hackers breached the files of the Office of Personnel Management, in which a vast amount of information about federal employees was accessed. According to the WSJ, investigators believe the hack compromised the records of approximately 4 million individuals. Indicatively, according to the OPM, there are about 4.2 million total personnel, so the hack affected some 95% of all Federal workers.
OPM Director Katherine Archuleta told the WSJ that: “we take very seriously our responsibility to secure the information stored in our systems, and in coordination with our agency partners, our experienced team is constantly identifying opportunities to further protect the data with which we are entrusted.”
An FBI spokesman said the agency is working with other parts of the government to investigate. “We take all potential threats to public and private sector systems seriously, and will continue to investigate and hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace,” he said.
The Office of Personnel Management, in a statement, said it detected the breach in April 2015 and is working with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
The Department of Homeland Security said it “concluded at the beginning of May” that the information had been stolen.
The OPM said it could discover that even more records were stolen. It couldn’t be learned how many of those individuals are government officials and how many might be contractors.
China has yet to respond officially, but as a reminder the last time the Pentagon accused China of hacking US defense programs, the communist nation was less than thrilled:
The U.S. claims contain "errors in judgment," Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng told reporters at a monthly news conference.
"First, they underestimate the American Pentagon's ability to protect its safety, and second, they underestimate the intelligence of the Chinese people," Geng said. "China is entirely capable of producing the weaponry needed for national defense," he added, pointing to recent domestic technological breakthroughs such as the country's first aircraft carrier, new generation fighter jets, large transport planes and the Beidou satellite system.
China has consistently denied claims its military is engaged in hacking, including those in a report by U.S. cybersecurity firm Mandiant that traced the hacking back to a People's Liberation Army unit based in Shanghai.
It was unclear how the FBI determined that Chinese hackers were behind the attack: supposedly computer experts in China were able to penetrate the massive US government firewalls, foregoing the guaranteed fame and riches from BTFD in Chinese stocks.
In any event, the release of this data just days after the NSA's massive surveillance powers were curbed is hardly a coincidence, although it remains to be seen if this latest penetration of government workers will generate any sympathy points with the massive spy agency, best known for cracking down not on foreign hackers but on domestic electronic communication.
The revelation, however, is sure to inflame already tense relations between China and the US, which has reached a fever point in recent weeks over the escalation of Chinese encroachment into territories claimed by US allies in the South China Sea.