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Attacks/Breaches

Dept. Of Energy Breach: Bigger Than We Realized

DOE says July data breach affected more than double the number of people in initial estimates. CIO tasks an independent investigator to probe breach and agency's technology infrastructure.

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The Department of Energy has revised its count of the number of people whose information was compromised in a July 2013 intrusion that resulted in the theft of personal information.

"The department has now identified approximately 104,179 past and current federal employees, including dependents and contractors, whose name, social security number, and date of birth were compromised by this cyber incident," says a July 2013 Cyber Incident FAQ released by the agency's Office of the CIO.

That data breach victim count more than doubles the number of records that the agency previously thought might have been compromised. Of the people affected, "64,480 are personnel within our direct DOE Federal and M&O [management and operating] Contractor Community, including spouses, dependents, and former employees," according to a memo distributed to DOE employees on Oct. 11, 2013. "The remainder are personnel from other federal agencies and support contractors."

[ Did lax security make DOE vulnerable? Read Energy Dept. Breach: Let's Get Back To Basics. ]

The memo further disclosed that 2,800 employees who have their DOE salary directly deposited into their bank account had that bank account number compromised as well. The agency said it's been able to notify most -- but not all -- of those affected people, owing to the agency not having up-to-date address information on hand for some former employees.

The Oct. 11 memo was written by the DOE's chief of staff, Kevin Knobloch, who joined the agency in June after serving as president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. A copy of the memo was provided anonymously to InformationWeek, and a DOE official confirmed its authenticity.

The July data breach involved DOEInfo, which is an employee database owned and maintained by the agency's Office of the Chief Financial Officer. Sources have told InformationWeek that DOEInfo is an outdated, publicly accessible ColdFusion system that hadn't been patched against known vulnerabilities, and was thus easy pickings for hackers.

DOE employees first learned of the DOEInfo data breach on Aug. 14, when the agency emailed a memo saying that at least 14,000 people had their information compromised as a result. But it warned that the number could change, because the investigation was ongoing, and in an Aug. 29 memo, the agency revised to 53,000 the estimated count of people affected.

With the Oct. 11 memo, however the DOE's big-picture message to agency employees and contractors -- worried about whether their personally identifiable information (PII) might have been compromised -- is that no news equals good news. "If you do not receive a notification letter by October 15, 2013, you should assume it is unlikely your PII was affected," according to the DOE FAQ. "If DOE later determines your PII was affected you will be notified, regardless of the date of discovery."

One piece of good news is that -- based on the ongoing investigation -- attackers don't appear to have been gunning for top-secret project plans or the identity of the agency's nuclear scientists. "Based on the findings of the Department's ongoing investigation into this incident, we do believe PII theft may have been the primary purpose of the attack," says the DOE FAQ. "Accordingly, the Department encourages each affected individual to be extra vigilant and to carefully monitor bank statements, credit card statements, emails and phone calls relating to recent financial transactions."

The DOE said that people affected by the breach will receive an activation code for a free year's worth of monitoring at a designated credit monitoring service. The agency also said that for affected dependents, it has purchased "a family care and protection plan that will monitor the social security numbers for children and youth who do not yet have a credit history." Affected employees will also receive up to four hours of paid time off for dealing with related identity theft prevention and cleanup.

The internal memo said that a related investigation remains ongoing -- meaning that the count of people affected by the breach may yet increase -- and referenced parallel law enforcement efforts. "We are working with interagency partners on actions that can be taken against those responsible and to reduce the likelihood of another successful attack," says Knobloch's memo.

He added that the agency has now also launched a large-scale internal investigation into the attack. "CIO Bob Brese requested in August that the DOE Inspector General conduct a management review of the facts leading up to the attack and compromise of the MIS [management information system] application and the applications and databases to which it connects," says the memo. "That review is underway."

A DOE Inspector General spokeswoman wasn't immediately available to answer questions, such as what constitutes a "management review," or what might result from such an investigation.

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