The Biggest Cyberattack Against the US in Recent History Just Keeps Getting Worse

US officials say the fingerprints of about 5.6 million US workers were stolen during the hack.

Howard Bartrop/Zuma

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On the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Washington, DC, the Obama administration released alarming new numbers about one of the biggest computer hacks in American history—traceable, officials say, to China—a move that could potentially heighten tension ahead of the historic meeting.

The Office of Personnel Management announced that it had substantially underestimated the number of people whose fingerprints were stolen during the attack earlier this year. About 5.6 million of 21.5 million federal employees, contractors, applicants, and others had their fingerprints stolen during a hack of the OPM’s background check databases, the agency reported Wednesday morning. That figure is higher than the 1.1 million previously reported.

An interagency group including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense are reviewing how the fingerprint information could be used in nefarious ways, but it downplayed the immediate impact. “Federal experts believe that, as of now, the ability to misuse fingerprint data is limited,” the agency said in a statement issued Wednesday morning, as President Barack Obama and a host of dignitaries hosted Pope Francis at the White House. “However, this probability could change over time as technology evolves.”

Obama is expected to discuss cybersecurity with Xi during this week’s visit. As the New York Times points out, the hacks are thought to have originated in China, but it’s unclear who exactly was behind the theft. The information known to have been stolen includes Social Security numbers and other secrets, like information gathered during background checks that could be used for blackmail. Fingerprints could also help identify government employees or contractors working overseas, potentially exposing millions of Americans.

China and the United States have been attempting to hammer out a cybersecurity treaty ahead of Xi’s visit. The Chinese president used a speech in Seattle on Tuesday to paint himself as an ardent defender of cybersecurity.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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