It’s the year 2035: A mid-level U.S. official suddenly is in a key strategic post making a decision on a terror group, an uprising of anti-American sentiment or a weapons contract, and it goes contrary to the interests of the United States, costing the nation prestige, money and maybe even lives.
A mistake in judgment? Or something worse?
The nation might never know for sure, but it very well could be the result of blackmail by U.S. enemies who accessed personal information through the recent breach of the federal Office of Personnel Management database.
The warning is from Paul Stephens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
“Absolutely,” he told WND in an interview Monday when asked about the possibility that the information obtained by hackers could come back to bite the U.S. in a major way.
It could happen without the nation even being aware.
“What I think makes this very unique compared to other data breaches is the inclusion of these government security clearance forms,” he said. “That’s the Standard Form 86. That form is 127 pages. You can imagine the amount of information.”
Further, those details are not only about the applicant, he said.
“There also is information about individuals [with whom] that applicant has come into contact,” he said. “References? There’s tremendous amounts of information.”
Stephens’ organization is a nonprofit that works to educate and empower individuals about their privacy. The group works to raise consumers’ awareness of how technology affects privacy, to let them take control of their own information and to advocate for their private rights in a variety of settings.
He was responding to WND questions about the recent data breach, which could affect up to 32 million Social Security numbers and involves information about every intelligence agent and data on every member of the U.S. armed forces.
The hackers’ haul included the SF-86 forms containing financial, personal, medical and other information on anyone who’s applied for a security clearance, as WND Editor and CEO Joseph Farah has noted.
“The reason these files are supposed to be guarded like the contents of Fort Knox is because they represent a goldmine for potential blackmailers,” Farah wrote.
“You can imagine the amount of information,” Stephens told WND.
Credit histories, medical details, details of misbehavior and more could now be in the hands of enemies of the U.S.
The estimates on the number of people have varied widely, with no confirmation from the OPM.
“We don’t know whether OPM is stonewalling … so many numbers are being thrown about,” he said.
The danger, he said, is that people may not even know that their hidden secret suddenly has become an Internet sensation for enemies of the United States. They then suddenly find themselves faced with public disclosure. And it could happen any time, even 30 years from now.
“That is the problem with data breaches,” he said. “You can’t get it back. It’s out there forever.”
There are reports China was behind the hack, and Stephens suggested that was credible.
Stephens, whose title is director of policy and advocacy, has extensive experience in public policy and regulatory issues.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center reported the theft was “one of the worst data breaches in U.S. history.”
At a congressional hearing a week ago, the director of the nation’s Office of Personnel Management, essentially the human resources department for the entire federal government, refused to say that all 32 million current and former federal workers in the nation’s database weren’t compromised by the breach.
The federal agency has reported that some 4.2 million federal workers had their personal information compromised, possibly stolen by the Chinese government, but congressional attempts to get more information in a hearing with OPM Director Katherine Archuleta were unsuccessful.
“I will not give a number,” she said when asked by House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, whether it could be as many as all 32 million names in the database.
When she was faced with calls to resign, she said she planned to hire another adviser to try to get a grip on the problem.
Reuters reported Archuleta described two breaches on her watch at OPM. One stole the details of about 4.2 million current and former workers. Details of the second breach, which penetrated the background check system, which contains extremely sensitive data, haven’t been disclosed.
Just a day earlier, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described her responses as “world-class buck-passing.”
Among agencies affected already are Defense, Justice, Treasury and Energy, as well as the CIA and the director of national intelligence.
The fact that the second breach, which remains under investigation, hit the system for background checks raised considerable alarm, since those who apply for certain security clearances provide details about not only themselves but others who may be called upon to verify the applicant’s information.
WND reported the concern that China could have Social Security numbers, personal financial data and other sensitive information.
Several national security experts have told WND that China could use the data for its own purposes or sell it to the highest bidder purely for profit, including an enemy of the United States.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) William “Jerry” Boykin, now executive vice president of the Family Research Council, said the prospect of military or civilian leaders having their personal information sold to terrorists must be taken seriously.
“First of all you have to ask yourself what could an individual citizen in America do with your personally identifiable information?” Boykin told WND. “Stolen identities are big business and very problematic and the Chinese could use that for the same thing a criminal would, don’t kid yourself.”
He said China could steal the IDs from the OPM database and then sell them to Iran, ISIS or some other foreign enemy.
“I think that’s a very real possibility, particularly given that they have been major supporters of Iran,” he said. “Now, the other thing is, keep in mind that many of these government officials who’ve had their identities stolen are high-profile people that have enemies. And those enemies may be ISIS or Hezbollah or al-Qaida. But the fact their identity has been compromised would not take even a teenager very long to look up tax records and determine where these people live and that could put them in physical danger.”
Clare Lopez, vice president of research and analysis at the Center for Security Policy, said the stolen information on background investigations gives an adversarial intelligence agency like China’s a “goldmine” of personal data.