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OPM Breach Offers Tough Lessons For CIOs

While your enterprise may have a Chief Information Security Officer and a robust data governance department, it's really CIOs and IT organizations that are on the front lines of protecting enterprise data. So, what lessons can we draw from the OPM breach?

Larry Loeb

June 17, 2015

3 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: <a href="https://pixabay.com/en/users/tigerlily713-194784/" target="_blank">tigerlily</a> via <a href="https://pixabay.com/en/code-hacker-data-security-707069/" target="_blank">Pixabay</a>)</p>

Windows 10 vs. Mac OS X 10.11: OS Showdown

Windows 10 vs. Mac OS X 10.11: OS Showdown


Windows 10 vs. Mac OS X 10.11: OS Showdown (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

The recent breach at the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) exposed data on 35 million government employees. According to a Reuters report, more than 35 years of data were compromised. This comes on the heels of a previous breach at OPM in 2014 that was targeted to unearth those applying for security clearance.

The FBI points the finger at China in these episodes, but China is not by any means the only threat. The US has recently charged a Russian national in the theft of 160 million credit card details, as well as Russia itself in a cyber-attack on a non-classified White House system. Government agencies are not the only targets. Sony allegedly got hammered by North Korea in The Interview dust-up, and ended up changing how it does business because of it. Health insurance provider Anthem had 80 million records compromised.

While your enterprise may have a chief information security officer and a robust data governance department, CIOs and IT organizations are the ones on the front lines of protecting enterprise data. What lessons can we draw from the OPM breach?

The most obvious lesson is that legacy systems are vulnerable. Legacy infrastructure is open to attack techniques and tools that may not have even existed two years ago. In general, legacy systems are very tempting to hackers because they are static in their form (and therefore easier to breach), and will usually have important information stored somewhere inside them.

Since it is highly unlikely that a "burn it down and start again" system upgrade is a viable option, IT is left with the task of trying to improve how it uses what is already there.

Networks are the first place to start. Most users don't care how networks are configured as long as they work. But hackers will care. Networks are the means for them to break into your house. If you have a data superhighway leading into your datacenter, consider putting up the tollbooths of network segmentation. Segmentation techniques can alert you if data starts being massively diverted to one specific area where it shouldn't be going.

[Ready for Hotspot 2.0? Read The Future of WiFi.]

The second tollbooth should be multi-factor authentication of data requests. More than using a username/password combination to authenticate, this approach requires the user to provide additional information in response to a challenge. Had this been in place at OPM, the hackers would have gone away empty handed.

The analytics used to measure normal operation in a legacy system must be constantly evaluated and improved. As an example, OPM had a multi-billion dollar intrusion detection system in place (called, ironically, Einstein) during the breaches. It failed miserably. It failed because it relied on people to tell it what to look for. Since the breach was caused by a previously unknown technique (also called a "zero day exploit"), it was not being tracked by the IDS. The lesson OPM offers for IT here is that blind reliance on any analytic tool will not guarantee your data is safe from attack.

To avoid losing precious information, enterprises must be flexible enough to rethink how they do business, how they store and use data. CTOs and CIOs are the leaders in this effort. But there is no technological magic bullet to be found. What has worked for you before will not stand up to sophisticated future attacks. Just ask Anthem.

About the Author(s)

Larry Loeb

Blogger, Informationweek

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek. He has written a book on the Secure Electronic Transaction Internet protocol. His latest book has the commercially obligatory title of Hack Proofing XML. He's been online since uucp "bang" addressing (where the world existed relative to !decvax), serving as editor of the Macintosh Exchange on BIX and the VARBusiness Exchange. His first Mac had 128 KB of memory, which was a big step up from his first 1130, which had 4 KB, as did his first 1401. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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