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The Real Question We Should Be Asking After the Massive Government Hack

06/10/2015 06:59 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

True or False? There was no way the Office of Personnel Management could have prevented hackers from stealing the sensitive personal information of millions of federal employees, past and present.

If you guessed "False," you'd be wrong. If you guessed, "True," you'd also be wrong.

The correct response is: "Ask a different question." Serious data breaches keep happening because there is no black-and-white answer to the data breach quagmire. So what should we be doing? That's the right question, and the answer is decidedly that we should be trying something else.

The parade of data breaches that expose information that should be untouchable continues because we're not asking the right questions. It persists because the underlying conditions that make breaches not only possible, but inevitable, haven't changed--and yet we somehow magically think that everything will be all right. And of course we keep getting compromised by a shortlist of usual suspects, and there's a reason. We're focused too much on the "who" and not asking simple questions, like, "How can we reliably put sensitive information out of harm's way while we work on shoring up our cyber defenses?"

According to the New York Times, the problems were so extreme for two systems maintained by the agency that stored the pilfered data that its inspector general recommended, "temporarily shutting them down because the security flaws 'could potentially have national security implications.'"

Instead, the agency tried to patch together a solution. In a hostile environment where there are known vulnerabilities, allowing remote access to sensitive information is not only irresponsible -- regardless the reason -- it's indefensible. Yet according to the same article in the Times, the Office of Personnel Management not only allowed it, but it did so on a system that didn't require multifactor authentication. (There are many kinds, but a typical setup uses a one-time security code needed for access, which is texted to an authorized user's mobile phone.) When asked by the Times why such a system wasn't in place at the OPM, Donna Seymour, the agency's chief information officer, replied that adding more complex systems "in the government's 'antiquated environment' was difficult and very time consuming, and that her agency had to perform 'triage' to determine how to close the worst vulnerabilities."

Somehow I doubt knowing that protecting data "wasn't easy" will make the breach easier to accept for the millions federal employees whose information is now in harm's way (or their partners or spouses whose sensitive personal information was collected during security clearance investigations, and may have been exposed as well).

A New Approach

Given the above circumstances, the game changer -- at least for the short-term -- may be found in game theory. In an "imperfect information game," players are unaware of the actions chosen by their opponent. They know who the players are, and their possible strategies and actions, but no more than that. When it comes to data security and the way the "game" is set up now, our opponent knows that there are holes in our defenses and that sensitive data is often unencrypted.

Since we can't resolve vulnerabilities on command, one way to change the "game" would be to remove personal information from systems that don't require multifactor authentication. Another game changer would be to only store sensitive data in an encrypted, unusable form. According to Politico, the OPM stored Social Security numbers and other sensitive information without encryption.

This fixable problem is not getting the attention it demands, in part because Congress hasn't decided it's a priority.

The U.S. is not the only country getting hit hard in the data breach epidemic. The recent attack on the Japanese Pension Service compromised 1.25 million records, and Germany's Bundestag was recently hacked (though the motivation there appeared to be espionage, according to a report in Security Affairs).

According to an IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence report earlier this year, cyberattacks caused the leak of more than a billion records in 2014. The average cost for each record compromised in 2014 was $145, and has increased to $195, according to Experian. The average cost to a breached organization was $3.5 million in 2014, but is now up to $3.8 million. More than 2.3 million people have become victims of medical identity theft, with a half million last year alone. Last year, $5.8 billion was stolen from the IRS and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration predicts that number could hit $26 billion by 2017.

If you look at the major hacks in recent history -- a list that includes the White House, the U.S. Post Office and the nation's second largest provider of health insurance -- it would seem highly unlikely that a lax attitude is to blame, but that is precisely the problem. A former senior administration adviser on cyber-issues spoke off the record with the New York Times about the OPM hack: "The mystery here is not how they got cleaned out by the Chinese. The mystery is what took the Chinese so long."

During this siege-period, while our defenses are no match for the hackers targeting our information, evasive measures are necessary. I agree with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who said, "We need the United States Congress to come out of the Dark Ages and actually join us here in the 21st century to make sure that we have the kinds of defenses that are necessary to protect a modern computer system."

But laws take a long time, and we're in a cyber emergency. The question we need to ask today is whether, in the short term, the government can afford not putting our most sensitive information behind a lock that requires two key-holders -- the way nukes are deployed -- or storing it offline until proper encryption protocols can be put in place.