OPM looking to rebuild trust

Shutterstock image: breached lock. 

For anyone who was not inclined to trust the federal government with their data before June of 2015, there were 21.5 million more reasons not to afterwards.

The biggest casualty of the 2015 Office of Personnel and Management breach was public trust, said the head of the National Background Investigations Bureau.

Speaking at the INSA counterintelligence symposium, Charles Phalen said the NBIB is doing everything it can to secure its legacy IT systems and that people can trust it with their data.

Phalen told FCW that NBIB has hardened its access controls with multifactor authentication to minimize the potential for a breach, but at the same time he said NBIB is also working from the premise that it is impossible to prevent all breaches.

He said the OPM component has increased data segmentation and added monitoring and evaluation tools to enable a quicker containment response to a breach -- a model he described as an "active shooter" response scenario.

Phalen said the NBIB is under regular attack from hackers, but no one has yet penetrated the perimeter, and he said there is no clear pattern as to whether the attacks are coming from nation states or other actors.

The NBIB replaced the Federal Investigative Services on Oct. 1, 2016, as part of the response to the OPM breach. The Defense Information Systems Agency has been tasked with building a new IT platform for the NBIB.

Phalen said NBIB officials have moved away from the "big bang" approach where they would move wholesale to the new platform once it is fully complete, and instead they expect to migrate in an iterative fashion as the new platform becomes operational in late 2018.

That system, he said, will need to be secure from the outset, but also flexible enough to adapt to changes in technology to avoid the problems of the current legacy systems.

The new system will need to "withstand any change in direction that we take with the process," he said. "So whether it becomes continuous vetting, or we still have the five-year periodic reinvestigation or some variant in between…this thing needs to be able to collect, move, store and make useful the data that we've collected."

The NBIB is still in the process of encrypting all of the social security numbers in its databases. At a House Oversight Committee hearing in February, Republican members criticized OMB and NBIB for not having all sensitive data encrypted yet.

In addition to making its data and systems more secure, the NBIB is also confronting a backlog of roughly half-a-million security clearances. Phalen said the backlog has flatlined and that the NBIB has added 400 investigators, with another 200 on the way. He said by and large the NBIB is exempt from President Donald Trump's federal hiring freeze since security clearances are a national security concern.

Phalen also stated that one of the priorities going forward is to work with stakeholders to determine if the current data being collected for security clearances is the right data, and whether the investigation process needs reform. He said he would ideally like to see more interviewing of colleagues to get more information about a candidate's behavior and work history to look for red flags.

During the panel discussion, Phalen said there is no evidence thus far that anyone whose data was stolen in the breach has been targeted. He and other panelists said it remains to be seen who exactly stole the data and how they might choose to exploit it.

They said that Americans will have to live with that ambiguity for a long time.

About the Author

Sean Carberry is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence. Prior to joining FCW, he was Kabul Correspondent for NPR, and also served as an international producer for NPR covering the war in Libya and the Arab Spring. He has reported from more than two-dozen countries including Iraq, Yemen, DRC, and South Sudan. In addition to numerous public radio programs, he has reported for Reuters, PBS NewsHour, The Diplomat, and The Atlantic.

Carberry earned a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, and has a B.A. in Urban Studies from Lehigh University.

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