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The True Impact Of The Chinese OPM Hack Is Only Just Now Being Realized

REUTERS/Jerry Lampen/Files

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Jonah Bennett Contributor

The recent pillaging of the Office of Personnel Management by Chinese hackers means that Beijing now likely has access to a long list of ethnic Chinese with close ties to top-level government officials.

Intelligence officials have surmised that the Chinese are trying to construct careful and detailed schematics of how the U.S. government operates by drawing from the stolen records of 4 million current and former federal employees, The New York Times reports.

The majority of the data was not encrypted, a fact which shocked investigators.

While China hasn’t publicly been named as the culprit, classified hearings reveal that the attribution is not controversial, despite China protesting that any allegations of involvement are irresponsible and unscientific.

Many of those federal employees with access to national security information are required to list information on foreign contacts, as well as a list of former boyfriends or girlfriends, relatives and even detailed financial information.

Some of those contacts are bound to be Chinese.

As noted by John Schindler, a former intelligence analyst with the NSA, part of the reason the leak is so dangerous is because most cases of espionage from China can be traced back to ethnic Chinese. Beijing, unlike other intelligence agencies, relies almost exclusively on its own people to conduct operations. Of the estimated 50 million Chinese living outside China, 4 million reside in the United States.

Aside from the risk stemming from ethnic Chinese, Schindler pointed out that the disclosure of sensitive information gives Beijing a wide variety of new attack vectors on Americans.

“They can target Americans in their database for recruitment or influence. After all, they know their vices, every last one — the gambling habit, the inability to pay bills on time, the spats with former spouses, the taste for something sexual on the side (perhaps with someone of a different gender than your normal partner) — since all that is recorded in security clearance paperwork,” Schindler wrote.

China now has the option of blackmailing any useful contacts into service, or even retaliating against them for not outright handing over information on all of their contacts, in order to extend Beijing’s reach deep into the U.S. government, especially on nuclear weapons and trade issues.

“And if you are a Chinese person who didn’t report your contacts or relationships with an American, you may have a problem,” James Lewis, a cyberexpert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The New York Times.

The State Department is well aware of the dangers. In 2010, upon request from the State Department, The New York Times redacted the names of any Chinese citizens mentioned in cables released by WikiLeaks.

The GOP has taken the breach as an opportunity to slam President Barack Obama for his insufficient handling of the epidemic of Chinese espionage. In particular, Mike Huckabee argued Monday that in response, the U.S. should hack the Chinese government, in order to “humiliate Chinese families for political corruption, or wipe-out a few critical Chinese computer systems.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham also bemoaned the inability of the U.S. to mount proper defenses against foreign intrusion.

“I fear the massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management may turn out to be yet another example of America being walked over by rivals and adversaries,” Graham told Politico.

What’s clear is that past attempts to crack down on Chinese cyberespionage haven’t been successful.

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