United States: Lessons For Business: The U.S. Office Of Personnel Management Announces Actions To Strengthen Cybersecurity In Wake Of Massive Data Breach

Last Updated: July 21 2015
Article by Kim Metzger and Eric McKeown

On June 29, 2015, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management ("OPM") announced its Actions to Strengthen Cybersecurity and Protect Critical IT Systems ("OPM Report"), issued in the wake of reported intrusions into OPM systems housing personnel and background investigation data for Federal job applicants, past and current employees, and others.  Some have called the OPM breach the most devastating cyberattack in U.S. history.  Responding to questions about the security of OPM data and the integrity of the agency's IT assets, the OPM Report summarizes the actions OPM has taken, and will take, to combat "sophisticated, well-funded, and focused" adversaries.  The OPM Report comes on the same day as two other important events related to the OPM breach:  a proposed class action lawsuit filed by the nation's largest government union against OPM, its Director, its Chief Information Officer, and a government contractor; and OPM's announcement that it is temporarily suspending its e-QUIP system, a web-based platform used to complete and submit background investigation forms.  While portions of the OPM Report are agency- and government-specific, it provides critical suggestions that businesses can implement to protect their data in the challenging and ever-changing cyberthreat landscape.

I.                   Background for the OPM Report.

OPM is the central human resources planner for the Federal Government.  Among other things, it assists Federal agencies in hiring new employees, and provides Federal investigative services for background checks.  OPM creates and maintains a wide range of confidential, private, and sensitive personally identifiable information ("PII") about Federal job applicants and past and current employees.

In December 2014, KeyPoint Government Solutions – a private contractor for OPM background checks – announced that it had suffered a computer network breach.  OPM alerted more than 48,000 federal employees that this breach might have exposed their PII.  On June 4, 2015, OPM announced that it, too, had been the subject of a cyberattack, detected in April 2015.  Plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, described below, allege the KeyPoint breach allowed hackers to obtain credentials that enabled the OPM breach.  OPM stated it intended to notify more than 4 million potentially-affected individuals.  While investigating this incident, OPM found "additional systems were compromised."  OPM reported it discovered this second incident as a result of its "aggressive efforts to update its security posture, adding numerous tools and capabilities to its network." 

Although the number of potential victims is unknown and currently under investigation, news reports indicate it may be growing exponentially, from the original OPM figure of 4.2 million, to as many as 18-32 million (OPM has not yet issued revised figures).

On June 29, 2015, the American Federation of Government Employees filed a proposed class action lawsuit against OPM, its Director, Katherine Archuleta, its Chief Information Officer, Donna Seymour, and KeyPoint.  The lawsuit alleges OPM negligently failed to remedy "significant deficiencies" in its cybersecurity protocol, after warnings dating back to at least 2007.  The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and more extensive credit monitoring than OPM originally offered.

Also on June 29, 2015, OPM announced it was temporarily suspending e-QUIP after discovering a "vulnerability" in the system.  OPM states it is taking this action proactively, and not as the direct result of malicious network activity, or exploitation of the vulnerability. 

II.                 The OPM Report.

The OPM Report describes 23 "prior and ongoing actions to improve IT system security," and 15 "new actions to bolster security and modernize IT systems."  

A.      Prior and Ongoing Actions.

The 23 prior and ongoing actions are part of a Strategic Plan for Information Technology implemented after OPM Director Archuleta's arrival in 2013.  A principle element of the strategic plan is information security, to "ensure the agency protects the identity and privacy of citizens and employees by implementing and actively monitoring standard security controls in IT systems that effectively protect the large volume of sensitive personal information collected and stored by OPM IT systems."  This is a worthy goal for any enterprise that creates or maintains PII.  These steps include:

Improving Security.

  1. Implemented two factor Strong Authentication for all privileged users, and increased the percentage of unprivileged users with two factor Strong Authentication.
  2. Restricted remote access for network administrators and restricted network administration functions that can be performed remotely.
  3. Reviewed all connections to ensure only legitimate business connections have access to the Internet.
  4. Deployed new hardware and software tools, including 14 essential tools to secure the network.
  5. Deployed anti-malware software across the environment to protect and prevent the deployment or execution of "cybercrime tools" that could compromise the network.
  6. Upgraded Security Assessment and Authorization for multiple systems. 
  7. Established a 24/7 Security Operations Center, staffed by professionals, to monitor the network for security alerts.
  8. Implemented continuous monitoring to increase ability to identify and respond to cyber threats in or near real time.
  9. Installed additional firewalls to filter network traffic.
  10. Centralized security management and accountability, and staffed with security professionals fully trained and dedicated to information security.
  11. Conducted a comprehensive review of IT security contract clauses to ensure appropriate oversight and protocols.
  12. Developed a Risk Executive Function to ensure risk mitigation at the organizational, business process, and information system levels.
  13. Mandated cybersecurity awareness training for the entire workforce.

Leveraging Outside Expertise.

  1. Collaborated with partners to share, learn, and standardize best practices, and to ensure information security policies are rigorous and cost-effective based on a risk assessment methodology that considers current and future threats.
  2. Worked with stakeholders to identify high value cyber targets within the network where bulk PII data are present, and to mitigate the vulnerabilities of those targets to the extent practicable.
  3. Worked with law enforcement and other agencies to reinforce existing security protocols, enhance systems security, and detect and prevent evolving and persistent threats.
  4. Brought in management and technology expertise to help manage incident response, to advise on further actions, and to ensure stakeholders are kept up to date on efforts.
  5. Helped other agencies hire IT leaders to combat cyber threats. 

Modernizing Systems.

  1. Invested in network remediation and stabilization.
  2. Standardized operating systems and applications throughout the agency environment, with the goal of implementing configuration baselines for all operating platforms in use.  Once baselines are in place, the agency will conduct routine compliance scans against them to identify security vulnerabilities.


  1. Strengthened oversight of contractors by developing, documenting, and implementing enhanced procedures to ensure a system test is fully executed for each contractor-operated system.
  2. Tightened policies and procedures for privileged users by reviewing and limiting the number of privileged users, the functions they can perform, the duration of time they can be logged in, and the functions they can perform remotely, and by logging all privileged user activity.
  3. Improved Portfolio Management by hiring a dedicated portfolio manager to lead IT transformation efforts and ensure security and performance requirements are addressed across the enterprise.

These efforts enabled OPM to detect additional sophisticated malicious activity on its network.

B.      New Actions

To meet evolving security threats, OPM will:

Improve Security.

  1. Complete deployment of two factor authentication to both privileged and unprivileged users.
  2. Expand continuous monitoring to contractor systems where feasible.
  3. Ensure access to contractor systems in the event of a security incident, so OPM and law enforcement can access data and conduct effective and immediate response.
  4. Review encryption of databases, recognizing that full encryption of all databases may not be possible, and that encryption may not prevent all incidents.

Leverage Outside Expertise.

  1. Hire a cybersecurity advisor to work with the Chief Information Officer to manage ongoing responses to existing incidents, complete development of a plan to mitigate future incidents, and assess whether long-term changes to the IT architecture are needed to ensure assets are secure.
  2. Consult with outside technology and cybersecurity experts to ensure the agency is leveraging best practices and expertise.
  3. Increase consultation with the Inspector General regarding recommendations for the IT modernization effort.

Modernize Systems.

  1. Migrate to a new IT environment with significantly increased security controls, to improve security of network infrastructure and IT systems.
  2. Finalize scope of the migration process by assessing the level of effort required and estimated costs.
  3. Evaluate all contracting options to determine which are best for the health of the modernization project and for taxpayers.
  4. Request additional Congressional support, reporting on further funding needs and recommending enhancement to accelerate the modernization plan.

Enhance Accountability.

  1. Increase senior leadership accountability through regular (monthly) reviews of the IT modernization and information security efforts with the CIO and new cybersecurity advisor.
  2. Establish regular employee and contractor training, including refresher training, on appropriate cyber hygiene and practices, to ensure every individual does his or her part to protect sensitive data.
  3. Document clear incident response protocols and procedures, recognizing that no two cyber incidents are alike.
  4. Ensure full regulatory compliance, in this case, with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).  FISMA requires that organizations: (i) periodically assess the security controls in organizational information systems to determine if the controls are effective in their application; (ii) develop and implement plans of action designed to correct deficiencies and reduce or eliminate vulnerabilities in organizational information systems; (iii) authorize the operation of organizational information systems and any associated information system connections; and (iv) monitor information system security controls on an ongoing basis to ensure the continued effectiveness of the controls.

III.              Conclusion.

The cybersecurity landscape is evolving, and as President Obama has recognized, both state and non-state actors are sending "everything they've got" to try to breach security systems and access valuable data.  As a result, all business enterprises that create and maintain personally identifying information must be vigilant, and take aggressive steps to enhance security protocols.  While no system is or can be bulletproof, the OPM Report offers suggestions – adaptable and scalable to a particular business, the type, amount, and sensitivity of PII it holds, the threat environment, and available resources – that will help protect both the business and subjects of the PII.

To the extent a business has not already done so, it should begin the process with data mapping and classification to determine what data it creates and maintains, where it is stored, how it flows, and how sensitive it is.  Once it has determined the amount, nature, location, and migration of the PII it holds, the business can perform a security risk assessment and gap analysis to identify vulnerabilities and mitigation strategies.  Finally, a data security policy and related procedures will make this information forward-facing to employees and others who handle PII for the enterprise.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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