Explained: How OPM identified job applicants affected by data loss

A back-up system saved enough information from the nearly 70,000 job applications that were affected by last week's data loss to allow the applicants to be identified and contacted, Federal Computer Week has learned.

The recovered documents were stored in a read-only mode, so it was impossible to process them but easy to identify the affected applicants, according to an Office of Personnel Management official speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official also provided a more precise number of applications affected: 69,567. The official provided the information in an e-mail message to Federal Computer Week.

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OPM took its USA Staffing hiring management system offline from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11 due to a malfunction. The system was restored to its Aug. 7 configuration, with loss or damage to all job applications submitted from Aug. 7 to Aug. 9.

The USA Staffing system, which connects to USAJOBS.gov, processes federal job applications for the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments and more than 50 other federal agencies.

“The standby server retained a read-only copy of the database, including all application information, which was used to determine the applications that were [affected]. In total, 69,567 applications were submitted during the two-day period,” the message said. “The database retained the applicant's contact information, and OPM notified the affected applicants via e-mail with guidance on resubmitting application materials.”

The official also provided additional information on how the breakdown occurred in the USA Staffing database, which the official identified as a relational database.

Relational databases are a popular format for organizing many kinds of data and are considered relatively easy to use. Data can be grouped into categories based on common characteristics in the data. For example, in a relational database of home sales in a city, the data can be arranged by date of sale, sale prices, or buyer’s name.

The incident began when OPM performed routine maintenance on the USA Staffing database during the weekend of Aug. 6-7.

Following the routine maintenance, errors in operation became evident. The problems appeared in data constraints, which are software tools that control how the data is grouped, the official said.

“Even though the database monitoring tools and testing process reported successful completion, some data relationship constraints did not import correctly,” the official wrote. “Constraints control data dependencies in relational databases, and when these are not working properly, data that is related in the system may be treated independently, causing system errors.”

“Application materials were not lost by the system, rather, the system was unable to process them due to the problems encountered with the database constraints,” the official added.

USA Staffing system capacity and security were not affected by the problems, the official said.

The system was taken offline to correct the malfunction. The database was restored to the version that was current when the data constraints were last in place, which was the version dated Aug. 7, the official wrote.

OPM officials previously had confirmed that the database errors had affected thousands of job seekers.

“On August 12, all 70,000 affected applicants and 54 agencies served by USA Staffing were notified individually so that any lost applications could be resubmitted,” Jennifer Dorsey, an OPM spokeswoman, said in an Aug. 16 statement.

OPM also apologized for the incident.

“USA Staffing apologizes for any inconvenience and will continue to address any concerns or questions applicants or agencies may have,” Dorsey wrote.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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