A year after the OPM breach, one cyber vendor is still looking for answers

CyTech Services, the veteran-owned small business that may have played a significant role in discovering the OPM hack a year ago, says it's never been paid for that work.

Ben Cotton, CEO of CyTech. (Photo courtesy CyTech)

Ben Cotton, CEO of cybersecurity vendor CyTech, says he helped OPM clean up in the wake of a massive data breach but hasn't been paid.

On April 21, 2015, an IT contractor unexpectedly found himself at the center of what would become the biggest cybersecurity breach in U.S. government history – the massive breach of Office of Personnel Management databases.

"The whole thing was bungled from the beginning by OPM," Ben Cotton, CEO of the service-disabled veteran-owned small business CyTech Services, told FCW.

Cotton was close to the discovery of the devastating OPM breach – so close that the Wall Street Journal actually reported CyTech's tools were actually responsible for its discovery. OPM has since claimed agency personnel found the intrusion themselves, and Cotton isn't fighting for breach discovery credit.

He is, however, fighting to get paid.

Jumping right in

By OPM's accounting, the feds found the breach on April 15, 2015, and expelled the adversary by April 24.

Cotton was at OPM demonstrating CyTech's CyFIR security tool in between those dates.

"From an atmospheric environment on the 21st, it did not appear to be an organization in the middle of incident response," Cotton said.

Since there was "no real sense of urgency" as he took most of the day to rack up his CyFIR server, Cotton said his OPM escort called it a day around 4 p.m.

Cotton didn't actually scan OPM's systems until the next day, April 22.

"From a known malware perspective, they weren't doing too bad," Cotton said, but when he reported three unknown processes running in OPM's active RAM, "all of a sudden hell broke loose."

OPM's then-CIO Donna Seymour later told Congress that OPM knew the breach had happened and were testing – or "tricking," as one congressman put it – the small business.

Cotton said he leapt into action without signing official paperwork because it was the right thing to do.

"Ben was special forces for 21 years, so he kicked into, 'I see a problem, I need to help' mode," said John Irvine, CyTech's CTO.

Cotton said he stayed on to support the mitigation work for the next week and a half, imaging the RAM and hard disks of potentially affected computers. Another CyTech engineer joined him, and they were at OPM until May 1.

The contract question

They didn't have a written contract. OPM says they never had a contract of any kind.

It's Cotton's contention that OPM director of security operations Jeff Wagner issued an "emergency verbal purchase order" to him on April 22, 2015, and told him to work through prime contractor Imperatis to sort out the details.

Last summer, then-CIO Seymour testified that OPM had purchased licenses from Cytech, but an OPM official told FCW on background that the agency had no records of such a contract, and that Seymour may have spoken in error.

The Imperatis rep that Cotton said was tasked with the contract work, meanwhile, told FCW, "I'm not allowed to talk about that."

Whatever happened, oral contracts are a murky business. The contracting experts with whom FCW spoke agreed that oral orders can be legally binding, but noted they're a minefield for small businesses that don't follow up with written documentation immediately.

Cotton says his company has been stiffed roughly $800,000. OPM officials don't just deny the claims, but have also  discussed the possibility of referring CyTech's case to the Justice Department for False Claims Act charges, according to an agency source. However, proving CyTech is acting in bad faith could be just as difficult for the government as proving a contract ever existed could be for CyTech.

CyTech sent a complaint letter to OPM in January, and OPM responded on March 17 with a request for supporting documentation -- the very documentation CyTech says doesn't exist, because the whole thing was predicated on a spoken order.

Other questions – from a breach cleanup contract breaking rules to a CIO shop accused of providing the inspector general with bad info – add to the strangeness surrounding the OPM hack.

In the end, Cotton left a single CyFIR server with OPM.

In August, OPM abruptly returned the device after the House Oversight Committee started asking questions, with data deleted.

"The data they deleted was also a full record of what our participation was," Cotton said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, asked acting OPM Director Beth Cobert for details and documentation on the CyTech appliance in a September 2015 letter. Chaffetz later filed a subpoena for the records, and the issue bubbled up to the fore in Cobert's February 2016 confirmation hearing.

Whether congressional investigators can fill in the record to match Cotton's account remains an open question. Chaffetz, through a spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this story.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.