DHS Warns Employees Of Potential Breach Of Private Data

A vulnerability in software used by a DHS vendor potentially exposed information ranging from Social Security numbers to names and birthdays



The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is warning current and former employees that their data may have been compromised after a vulnerability was uncovered in software used by a DHS vendor to process personnel security investigations. According to DHS, the unidentified vendor uses software that gathers and stores sensitive personally identifiable information (PII) for background investigations. As a result, the vulnerability could have left information ranging from Social Security numbers, names, and birth dates exposed to an unauthorized user.

"DHS believes that employees who submitted background investigation information, and individuals who received a DHS clearance, between July 2009 and May 2013, primarily for positions at DHS HQ, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), may be affected," the agency warns. "While at this time, there is no evidence that any unauthorized user accessed any personally identifiable information, applicants’ names, Social Security numbers (SSN), and date of birth (DOB) may have been accessible."

DHS was alerted to the vulnerability by a law enforcement partner, and it was immediately addressed. The department is also working with the vendor on notifications for current contractors, inactive applicants, and former employees and contractors.

"Employees can protect themselves by requesting that a fraud alert be placed on their credit file to let potential creditors know to contact them before opening a new account in their name," according to DHS. "The company you contact will contact the other two credit bureaus on the employee’s behalf to have the fraud alert placed on their file."

The vulnerability disclosure by the DHS is the latest example of the need for government agencies and enterprises to monitor and manage IT security risks downstream in the software supply chain, says Torsten George, vice president of worldwide marketing, products, and support for IT risk management Agiliance.

"Since many organizations have hardened defense mechanisms against direct attacks targeting their front-office applications or network infrastructure, hackers are increasingly focusing on the IT supply chain as a new attack vector," he says. "In the past, many organizations relied on software vendors to test for vulnerabilities in their code base. However, as cyberattacks against the software supply chain increase, we expect organizations to extend their vulnerability assessments beyond vendor risk surveys and have third-party service providers test software applications prior to procurement and deployment."

"This will completely change the way we think about vulnerability management," he adds.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced that DHS is developing a system to share classified data about software vulnerabilities with the private sector.

"Rapidly deploying application and operating system patches is an excellent preventive medicine toward making your systems less attractive targets for hackers," notes Rapid7's Ross Barrett, senior manager of security engineering. "If you are running something with known vulnerabilities on the Internet, it’s only a matter of time before someone will try to take advantage of that."

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Brian Prince is a freelance writer for a number of IT security-focused publications. Prior to becoming a freelance reporter, he worked at eWEEK for five years covering not only security, but also a variety of other subjects in the tech industry. Before that, he worked as a ... View Full Bio

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