Pilfering data isn't like stealing this vase. A security man stands guard next to a early Ming underglaze copper-red vase during an auction by Christie's in Hong Kong Tuesday, May 30, 2006.

Pilfering data isn't like stealing this vase. A security man stands guard next to a early Ming underglaze copper-red vase during an auction by Christie's in Hong Kong Tuesday, May 30, 2006. Vincent Yu/AP

How OPM Can Find Its Missing Data on the Dark Web

The best way to recover from breaches is to assume that they’re inevitable — and start looking for your data before you know it’s gone.

The data breach announced last week — more than 4 million federal employee records stolen from the Office of Personnel Management, or OPM, allegedly by hackers linked to the Chinese government  — was “the most significant” theft of government data ever, according to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. But experts say it’s not too late to reduce the harm done by tracking the stolen information as it moves around the Internet.

Stealing data is different from stealing a Ming vase, in that the original remains behind. If cyber detectives can find a copy of this data “in the wild,” they can limit its value as a tool for fraud, help build a case attributing the hack to the Chinese government, and develop insight into how the data will be used.

How would you do that? First, make sure you can recognize the data when you come across it, using a technique called cryptographic hashing. “It’s not code that’s embedded in the data so much as a computation done on the data itself,” said Danny Rogers, one of the co-founders of Terbium Labs, a data intelligence company that tracks stolen data. By running chunks of the data through a mathematical function, you generate a hash — a number unique to each specific chunk. You can then crawl the web in search of data whose hash values match those of your original.

The point is to drastically cut down on the amount of time it takes to discover that data has been stolen, by constantly crawling the web in the search for hashes, even before you know it’s gone. 

Last week, Terbium released a product called Matchlight that hunts for stolen data. “We compute a whole bunch of these hash values on little pieces of data, both on behalf of our clients and as we crawl. We simply compare the results of those hash functions to each other to tell which data had a similar input,” he said.

Hashing won’t prevent a breach from happening. The point is to drastically cut down on the amount of time it takes to discover that data has been stolen, by constantly crawling the web in the search for hashes, even before you know it’s gone. Early discovery can make the stolen data worth less to the people who stole it.

“You really can’t prevent every breach. With advanced enough actors, you have to assume that your organization is going to be breached at some point,” Rogers said. “The most important element of your security posture is how quickly you can detect where the data is and respond, initiating whatever remediation plan you have in place.”

The OPM breach was detected in April by Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, experts using a system called Einstein 3, which looks for malware on federal computer networks. The system, designed to predict and prevent major cyber breaches, did neither of those things here. But it was — at least partially — useful in detecting the the breach after the fact.

How long after the fact? DHS hasn’t said. But the average time between a breach and its discovery by the plundered organization is 200 to 230 days, according to Rogers. Moreover, it’s often third-party security firms like Kaspersky Labs or IOActive that make the discovery.

Of course, there’s more than one way to detect major intrusions after they occur. That’s what Matchlight is all about. “We can bring that down to 30 seconds-to-15 minutes,” said Rogers.  He says that Matchlight, though hardly the only product that can do cryptographic hashing, is the only one that can do it on the scale relevant to an organization like OPM. “We focus on the large-scale automation of that process,” Rogers said.

Of course, the data fingerprinting is only useful if the stolen data hits the Dark Web — a portion of the web unreachable through “normal” search engines like Google. Often accessed anonymously through onion routing services like Tor, the Dark Web is often associated with illegal exchanges — but is also used by activists and journalists looking to exchange information beyond the gaze of authoritarian regimes.

Is the arrival of the stolen records on the Dark Web a certain bet? The chief value of much of stolen OPM data could be the narrow targeting of very particular military or national security workers, possibly via blackmail or elaborate phishing scams.

“The background investigation data stolen from OPM is everything anyone would ever need for blackmail,” ACLU chief technologist Chris Soghoian noted on Twitter.

But the idea of narrowly targeting four million people is absurd. There’s a good chance that at least some of the stolen data could wind up for sale in dark corners of the Internet or as part of fraud schemes that have nothing to do with the military rivalry between the United States and China.

This seems like a breach that was motivated primarily by espionage motivations. But, at the same time, the line between espionage motivations and economic motivations is quite blurry.
Danny Rogers, co-founders of Terbium Labs

“This seems like a breach that was motivated primarily by espionage motivations. But, at the same time, the line between espionage motivations and economic motivations is quite blurry,” said Rogers. “I strongly expect to see elements of this data appearing out in the dark web for fraud activities.”

“There is a big possibility the information will firstly be sold as huge ‘data chunks’ and later will go for cheap to some of the re-sellers and will be sold individually for each record,” Ido Wulkan, the senior analyst at S2T, which develops Dark Web harvesting technologies, told Defense One. “I would focus my search on Mandarin-speaking Dark-Web forums and card markets, reviewing information from the past few months. The fact that a [Chinese] government-backed group might be behind the breach may indicate that the information was not stolen for financial purposes, and if that is the case, it most probably will not find its way online.”

Major data thefts like the OPM hack will be more frequent as the amount of personal data, and personal health data explodes in the years ahead. In order for data to have value, it must be used. When data is used, it becomes visible, as does the person or individual that used it. Perhaps the best way to drive down losses from data theft is to spend less on fancy prevention systems, since prevention is impossible, and more on systems to track and reveal data once it goes missing.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.