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Foreign hackers gain access to a U.S. government database, details on ALL government officials are leaked, and the identities of CIA operatives around the world are in danger of being compromised.

No, this isn’t the plot from the newest Bourne movie — it is the reality setting in as we speak in the United States with the latest breach of records held by the Office of Personnel Management.1,3

In fact, the magnitude of this real world hack is so big — the information of over 20 million people1 was compromised — I’m not sure it would be believable as a movie plot. 20+ million people. That’s 20 million people who’ve had their personally identifying information stolen. 20 million people whose livelihoods are being threatened.

It is simply unfathomable to think that foreign hackers now have extensive information on every single person who currently works, has worked, or has applied to work for the U.S. Government, including individuals with top secret government clearance.

What was compromised

So this data breach couldn’t have been that bad right? What information could the hackers possibly have taken?

Well, for starters, the hackers now have millions of records of…1,2

  • social security numbers
  • fingerprints
  • usernames and passwords
  • detailed financial records
  • detailed health records
  • performance reviews
  • residence histories
  • travel histories
  • educational histories
  • employment histories
  • detailed info on relatives and friends

Wait... what information didn't they take?

Surprisingly this data was stored in a single Office of Personnel Management database and the data was not encrypted. Worse… access to ALL of this information was given to certain foreign contractors. Worse still? Hackers had access to the database for over a year!

Think for a second about how foolish and negligent this is. We should be demanding way more of our government. They have failed us and we have to demand they make progress and prevent this from ever happening again.

So now I ask… [places head in hands] what preventative measures can be taken?

Improvements to securing information

Well, for one our government organizations like O.P.M. can start securing their databases better. All of the information that lies therein should be encrypted and data access control policies need to be completely overhauled. Multiple senior members of the organization should be required to sign off in order for someone to gain access to the encrypted information, and government contractors definitely should not be granted access to entire databases at a time.

But we shouldn’t stop there. The controls put in place above would significantly improve what we have now, but attacks are only going to increase in frequency and sophistication, so data would still be able to be compromised in the future by better orchestrated attacks.

What we need to do is stop storing all of our government data in a single place. Yes, we can encrypt this data, but as long as all of the data is able to be decrypted by one or a few people, it is incredibly vulnerable.

Think about an alternative model, one in which there is a different decryption key for each government employee’s records. Each employee has unique access to decrypt his/her own records, so in order for 20 million records to be compromised, 20 million individuals would have to be hacked, not one.

And if specific government agencies need access to records at a given time? We can (a) make derivative information more widely accessible and (b) institute a method to backup the decryption keys with the top officials in the respective agencies of the employed.

Reducing the costs of stolen information

Now the last thing we can do is reduce the costs of stolen information. Right now, all of this information is incredibly valuable to hackers because it can be used to impersonate someone online. Right now, we use personal information like social security numbers, birth dates, residence histories and information on family members to identify people and “authenticate” them.

Ever answered “security questions” for your bank or another service? That’s what we’re talking about here. This method is incredibly insecure and it needs to end. If (a) your information is used to help you gain access to your bank accounts and government accounts and (b) hackers get your information then (c) hackers can now gain access to everything you own and potentially ruin your life.

A better way to authenticate

A better way to identify and authenticate people online would be one that relies on the physical devices that we're all in possession of. We shouldn't have services lean on asking for personally identifiable information to determine who you are online. If we did this, our authentication systems wouldn't be vulnerable to hacks like the massive one we’re currently dealing with. Further, with less of an emphasis on this data, the information becomes less valuable and less enticing to hackers in the first place.

We can pull ourselves out of this mess and prevent it from ever happening again. We just need to embrace new technologies and prioritize strong encryption, operational security and decentralization of data access.

Let's tell our representatives that it's time for them to get serious.

  1. https://www.opm.gov/news/releases/2015/07/opm-announces-steps-to-protect-federal-workers-and-others-from-cyber-threats/
  2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/wp/2015/07/09/hack-of-security-clearance-system-affected-21-5-million-people-federal-authorities-say/
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/us/office-of-personnel-management-hackers-got-data-of-millions.html

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