Hacking U.S. OPM: Is China preparing to ‘sanction’ U.S. officials?

Chinese hackers stole data on 4 million current and former government employees from the US Office of Personnel Management, dating back to 1985. Why?

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WASHINGTON, June 11, 2015 — Revelations that Chinese hackers stole data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) dating back to 1985 have raised questions about who exactly was behind the attack. Initial suggestions were that the Chinese government targeted the information, while other experts say the data, which include records on four million current and former government employees, would be more useful to criminals.

Compromising the computers of the OPM gave hackers access to information on Federal employees from almost every government agency. OPM is the human resources department for the federal government, and it conducts background checks for security clearances for the majority of government agencies.

Some experts have suggested the Chinese hackers may have accessed the data to glean information on how the U.S. government might react to various situations. Others note the information could help target potential sources for Chinese intelligence. There is, however, another possibility.

Over the last year, the Chinese government has flexed its muscles in the South China Sea and issued bellicose statements about its ownership of the area. China could be attempting to analyze information from government computers to provide insights into whether and how the United States might use economic sanctions or other tools to stop China from exercising its authority in the region.

China has also previously attempted to use cyber attacks and other forms of espionage to monitor and assess U.S. military capabilities and to develop weapons systems specifically designed to counter U.S. capabilities.

In either case, the security breach of OPM computers by Chinese hackers raises significant questions about the motivation of the perpetrators. Even if a private entity was behind the attacks, some segments of the Chinese government likely would be willing to purchase the information for its own reasons.

China could use the information to retaliate against specific U.S. government employees if the U.S. implements its own sanctions against China. Chinese intelligence services could also attempt to use any vulnerabilities contained in OPM files as leverage to try to recruit U.S. government employees to provide them with sensitive information.

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