The U.S. is investigating a hacking attack on databases containing sensitive information on federal workers, according to a Department of Homeland Security official.
Federal investigators in March discovered an intrusion into the computer networks of the Office of Personal Management, which among other things stores information about federal workers with top-secret security clearances.
The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team is investigating the intrusion. It hasn’t been able to determine whether personally identifiable information was lost, said the DHS official, who requested anonymity because the investigation is active.
The cyber-attack was reported earlier by the New York Times, which cited an unnamed senior U.S. official as saying the attack was traced to China -- although it wasn’t clear if the hackers were linked to the government. The hackers appeared to be targeting the files on tens of thousands of employees who have applied for top-secret clearances, according to the Times.
Disclosure of the attack comes as Secretary of State John Kerry wraps up annual strategic talks in Beijing that have included discussions about cyber-espionage. Kerry told reporters he and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew were notified of the OPM cyber-attack only minutes earlier and therefore didn’t raise it during the talks.
“At this point in time, it doesn’t appear to have compromised any sensitive material,” Kerry said.
The U.S. Department of Justice in May indicted five Chinese military officials for stealing the trade secrets of major global companies like U.S. Steel Corp. and Alcoa Inc. One accused hacker known as UglyGorilla sought access to parts of a U.S. utility that would let him cut off heat or explode pipelines.
The U.S. delegation in China “had a frank exchange on cyber issues,” Kerry said at a press conference following the talks.
“The loss of intellectual property through cyber has a chilling effect on innovation and investment,” Kerry said. “Incidents of cyber theft have harmed our businesses and threatened our nation’s competitiveness.”
Kerry said both sides agreed “it is important to continue discussions in this area.”
China withdrew its participation in a special cybersecurity working group following the indictment in May of the five Chinese military officers.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters today the Chinese government is against hacking and there’s no evidence to link the government to attacks.
“China is always able to walk the talk,” Lei said. “We feel such reports are irresponsible.”