Four Years Later, OPM Breach Fallout Continues

By CyFIR   

The data breach of Office of Personnel Management (OPM) networks in April 2015 compromised sensitive personal information of more than 21.5 million people. With litigation ongoing, the “OPM Breach” remains one of the most damaging security incidents of all time and a poignant example of the importance of good cyber hygiene, the significant potential costs of a data breach, 

and the importance of cyber security tools and practices that can uncover vulnerabilities residing within a network environment.   


When Federal Government investigators reviewed the causes of the OPM breach, they didn’t cite the intrusion itself as the agency’s biggest blunder. Rather, according to Congressional investigators, it was OPM’s lack of visibility on the endpointsthe lack of adherence to basic cyber hygiene practices, and the lack of cyber resiliency that allowed the breach to result in such devastating consequences.  


According to CyFIR Chief Product Officer John J. Irvine, the OPM Breach remains a good example of why traditional castle and moat style breach prevention is not sufficient. “We live in a post-breach world,” said Irvine. Organizations today need to assume that a breach has happened or will happen. That means adhering to security practices that reduce the potential impact any intrusion can have.” 


Without standard security practices like encryption, data masking, and redaction, once the intruders were inside OPM’s system they were able to collect unprecedented amounts of sensitive personal information on current and former Federal employees. In the aftermath of the OPM breach, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted an in depth investigation of the incident and provided 80 recommendations to OPM for improving its security posture, such as strengthening firewall controls, enforcing password policies, restricting access to a key server, logging security-related activities, and updating the contingency plan for a high-impact system. Implementing good cyber hygiene within complex networks filled with aging technology can be a complex task, and today OPM is still in the process of implementing these recommendationsFor that reason, a layered Defense in Depth approach to digital information security can help limit the impact when one security measure fails 


Another key lesson of the OPM Breach relates to the severity of its impact. With the loss of sensitive information from personnel files, job applications, and background investigations, the OPM Breach has had widespread implications for national security, financial penalties, and the personal lives of the people whose data was stolen. Despite offering individuals affected by the breach with credit monitoring and other identify protection services at a price tag of over $133 million, OPM soon found itself named as a defendant in several breach-related lawsuits that are ongoing today. As recently as last year, courts ruled that sovereign immunity does not shield OPM from potential damages resulting from financial crimes that utilized the stolen data. Some estimates suggest that the total cost of the breach could run significantly higher and exceed $ 1 billion. This is a stark reminder that for public and private entities, security incidents create exposure to significant risk that can cost millions or billions in lost revenue, regulatory fines, or legal liability  


Third, the OPM Breach illustrates why it is critical to have tools that can detect malware or unauthorized activity within a network and rapidly pivot on that information to perform an enterprise forensic investigation and analysis. When bad actors infiltrate a network environment, it can take hours, days, or weeks to accomplish their intended goal. When CyTech – the company that developed the CyFIR Enterprise Platform – conducted a demo in April 2015 of its forensic analysis capabilities to OPM, it was able to identify a set of unknown processes running on a limited set of live OPM endpoints that had the appearance of malware within minutes of installation. Unfortunately, intruders began hacking OPM’s systems as early as November 2013 and had already been present in OPM’s network for months before being detected. The result – the worst public sector data breach of all time.  

When CyTech – the company that developed the CyFIR Enterprise Platform –  conducted a demo in April 2015 of its forensic analysis capabilities to OPM, it was able to identify a set of unknown processes running on a limited set of live OPM endpoints that had the appearance of malware within minutes of installation.

Since malicious activity can spread quickly throughout a network environment, speed is critical in detecting a security issue or anomaly,” said CyFIR Founder Ben Cotton. “Identifying suspicious activity early gives an organization the best chance of containing a breach before irreparable damage occurs. 


As it did in its demo to OPM, the CyFIR Enterprise Platform enables immediate, live digital forensic analysis that can instantly alert security technicians to potential compromises residing within a network environment and then conduct forensic grade enterprise searchability to answer complex questions such as scope of breach, scope of loss, presence of persistence mechanisms, exfiltration vectors etc.. With CyFIR, discovery of an intrusion happens on Day 1, allowing incident response to be completed in an average of nine days. By contrast, data breaches commonly go 200 days or more before detection, resulting in millions of dollars in damages 


To learn how CyFIR can help improve your security posture or to request a Demo, get in touch today.
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