Data hacked from federal government dates back to 1985: U.S. official

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Data Obtained in U.S. Government Hack Dates Back to 1985

Data stolen from U.S. government computers by suspected Chinese hackers included security clearance information and background checks dating back three decades, U.S. officials said on Friday, underlining the scope of one of the largest known cyber attacks on federal networks.

The breach of computer systems of the Office of Personnel Management was disclosed on Thursday by the Obama administration, which said records of up to 4 million current and former federal employees may have been compromised.

Accusations by U.S. government sources of a Chinese role, including possible state sponsorship, in the cyber attack could further strain ties between Washington and Beijing. Tensions are already heightened over Chinese assertiveness in pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea.

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Data hacked from federal government dates back to 1985: U.S. official
Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, listens during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill June 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. Witnesses testified about the hacking of Office of Personnel Management data. (Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
From left Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, US Chief Information Officer Tony Scott, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary for National Protection and Programs Andy Ozment, and McFarland, inspector general of the Office of Personnel Management, are sworn in during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill June 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. Witnesses testified about the hacking of Office of Personnel Management data. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 23 - Katherine Archuleta, director, Office of Personnel Management, testifies during a Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee hearing to review data security and information technology spending at the Office of Personal Management on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Katherine Archuleta, director of Office of Personnel Management, arrives for a Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee hearing to review information technology spending and data security at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, on Capitol Hill, June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. FBI Director James Comey recently told Senators in a closed-door meeting that the personal data of an estimated 18 million current and former federal employees were affected by a recent cyber breach at the Office of Personnel Management. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest answers questions on the massive cyber-attack on the personal data of government employees June 5, 2015 during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. The US government on Thursday admitted hackers accessed the personal data of at least four million current and former federal employees, in a vast cyber-attack suspected to have originated in China. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest answers questions on the massive cyber-attack on the personal data of government employees June 5, 2015 during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. The US government on Thursday admitted hackers accessed the personal data of at least four million current and former federal employees, in a vast cyber-attack suspected to have originated in China. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A gate leading to the Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington, Friday, June 5, 2015. China-based hackers are suspected once again of breaking into U.S. government computer networks, and the entire federal workforce could be at risk this time. The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that data from the Office of Personnel Management _ the human resources department for the federal government _ and the Interior Department had been compromised. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest answers questions on the massive cyber-attack on the personal data of government employees June 5, 2015 during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. The US government on Thursday admitted hackers accessed the personal data of at least four million current and former federal employees, in a vast cyber-attack suspected to have originated in China. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 05: The Theodore Roosevelt Federal Building that houses the Office of Personnel Management headquarters is shown June 5, 2015 in Washington, DC. U.S. investigators have said that at least four million current and former federal employees might have had their personal information stolen by Chinese hackers. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 05: The entrance to the Theodore Roosevelt Federal Building that houses the Office of Personnel Management headquarters is shown June 5, 2015 in Washington, DC. U.S. investigators have said that at least four million current and former federal employees might have had their personal information stolen by Chinese hackers. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 05: The Theodore Roosevelt Federal Building that houses the Office of Personnel Management headquarters is shown June 5, 2015 in Washington, DC. U.S. investigators have said that at least four million current and former federal employees might have had their personal information stolen by Chinese hackers. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks about the Chinese hack of the computer system of the Office of Personnel Management, Friday, June 5, 2015, during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Graphic shows details of recent notable data breaches by organization; 3c x 6 inches; 146 mm x 152 mm;
FILE - This Feb. 24, 2015, file photo, shows the Homeland Security Department headquarters in northwest Washington. The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement Thursday, June 4, 2015, that data from the Office of Personnel Management and the Interior Department had been hacked. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
The American flag is reflected in a window at the Theodore Roosevelt Building, headquarters of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, June 5, 2015. The disclosure by U.S. officials that Chinese hackers stole records of as many as 4 million government workers is now being linked to the thefts of personal information from health-care companies. The hackers, thought to have links to the Chinese government, got into the OPM computer system late last year, according to one U.S. official. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Vehicles drive past the Theodore Roosevelt Building, headquarters of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, June 5, 2015. The disclosure by U.S. officials that Chinese hackers stole records of as many as 4 million government workers is now being linked to the thefts of personal information from health-care companies. The hackers, thought to have links to the Chinese government, got into the OPM computer system late last year, according to one U.S. official. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Several U.S. officials, who requested anonymity, said the hackers were believed to have been based in China but that it was not yet known if the Chinese government or criminal elements were involved.

Another U.S. official said the breach was being investigated as a matter of national security.

The cyber attack was among the most extensive thefts of information on the federal work force, and one U.S. defense official said it was clearly aimed at gaining valuable information for intelligence purposes.

"This is deep. The data goes back to 1985," a U.S. official said. "This means that they potentially have information about retirees, and they could know what they did after leaving government."

Access to data from OPM's computers, such as birth dates, Social Security numbers and bank information, could help hackers test potential passwords to other sites, including those with information about weapons systems, the official said.

"That could give them a huge advantage," the official said.

Investigators have linked the OPM breach to earlier thefts of personal data from millions of records at Anthem Inc (ANTM.N), the second largest U.S. health insurer, and Premera Blue Cross, a healthcare services provider.

It was the second computer break-in in less than a year at OPM, the federal government's personnel office, and the latest in a string of cyber attacks on U.S. agencies, some of which have been blamed on Chinese hackers.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said such accusations had been frequent of late and were irresponsible. Hacking attacks were often cross-border and hard to trace, he said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "It's not clear who the perpetrators are," but he noted that President Barack Obama and his aides regularly raise with their Chinese counterparts concerns about Chinese behavior in cyberspace.

Disclosure of the latest computer breach comes ahead of the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue scheduled for June 22-24 in Washington, D.C. Cyber security was already expected to be high on the agenda.

U.S. officials said the talks would proceed as scheduled, as would Obama's plans to host Chinese President Xi Jinping on a state visit to Washington in the fall.

FBI PROBE UNDER WAY

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched a probe of the OPM attack, and vowed that it would bring to account those responsible for the hacking.

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OPM detected new malicious activity affecting its information systems in April and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it concluded early in May that OPM's data had been compromised and about 4 million workers may have been affected.

Hackers hit OPM's IT systems and its data stored at the Department of the Interior's data center, a shared service center for federal agencies, a DHS official said on condition of anonymity.

Chinese hackers were blamed for penetrating OPM's computer networks last year, and hackers appeared to have targeted files on tens of thousands of employees who had applied for top-secret security clearances, the New York Times reported last July, citing unnamed U.S. officials.

James Lewis, a cyber security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the administration's disclosure of the hacking could be a signal to China of Washington's plan to push hard on cyber issues at this month's talks.

"The Chinese have been saying privately, and somewhat in public, that we want the summit to go really well. 'Let's not talk about espionage. Let's talk about how we can work together'," said Lewis, a former State Department official. "This might be a U.S. response to that: 'No, we are going to talk about espionage.'"

He suggested it might also be a way of telling the Chinese that part of the cost of their conduct in the South China Sea, where Beijing is carrying out land reclamation on tiny islands and reefs, will be a tense round of meetings in Washington.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, David Brunnstrom, Julia Edwards and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Jason Szep, Doina Chiacu, Toni Reinhold)

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