When the government announced this summer that more than 4 million federal employees had their personal information stolen—likely by Chinese hackers—lawmakers and victims were outraged. Officials pointed fingers, the FBI threatened retaliation, and the government handed out meager compensation: a free year of credit monitoring for the affected workers.
Things only got worse from there. It soon became clear that the Office of Personnel Management had been breached more than once, and that the agency’s original estimate of the damage could be low. Government workers who hadn’t heard from the government about the first breach began to wonder if their data was caught up in a potentially much bigger hack. It took four weeks, but the answer finally came, and the difference in scale was astounding.
More than 22 million people—government employees, retirees, and their relatives—were affected by the data breaches at OPM. Of those people, the agency initially said, about 1 million also had their fingerprints revealed. Months later, it returned with another update: The number of fingerprints lost to hackers was in fact more than five times higher than initially estimated.
Why did this agency, which functions as the federal government’s human-resources department, have so much trouble protecting its data? For one, it didn’t know how much it had to begin with.