In June, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which acts as the human resources department for the federal government, admitted that sensitive records pertaining to millions of federal employees had been compromised in a cyberattack. Background investigations of some 4.2 million "current, former and prospective" federal employees, including their Social Security numbers, were stolen, according to an OPM announcement. The breach was arguably the single worst such attack in American history.
Over the next few weeks, it became clear that Chinese data thieves had penetrated deep into the American government's personnel records. Hackers obtained explicit details about U.S. workers' sex lives, an anonymous official told The Daily Beast, as well as other potentially compromising personal info such as marital problems, gambling and drug habits, and debt.
By the end of June, OPM had shut down its Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing system, an online portal for submitting background check material, after identifying a potential vulnerability.
The shutdown was temporary, but the damage done by the hack will likely be long-lasting. Joel Brenner, who served as a senior U.S. counterintelligence official under George W. Bush, told The Washington Post in June that the breach was "potentially devastating" for counterintelligence operations. "These forums contain decades of personal information about people with clearances…which makes them easier to recruit for foreign espionage on behalf of a foreign country."
In July, OPM announced that another 21.5 million Americans had been affected by a "separate, but related" breach of confidential information. The day after the announcement, OPM chief Katherine Archuleta, who served as the national political director of President Obama's 2012 campaign, tendered her resignation. In her exit letter, she noted that she was particularly proud of the office's IT Strategic Plan, which included information security.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Washington Hack".