OPM hit by class-action suit over breach of federal employee data

The employees charge the Office of Personnel Management and a contractor with negligence

A federal employees union has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, its leadership and a contractor, alleging that their negligence led to a data breach that compromised the personal information of millions of current, former and prospective government employees and contractors.

Since at least 2007, the OPM has been warned by its Office of Inspector General of significant deficiencies in its cybersecurity protocol, according to the proposed class-action suit filed Monday by the American Federation of Government Employees in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

However, OPM failed to take measures to correct these issues, despite handling massive amounts of federal applicants' private, sensitive and confidential information, it added. The data handled by the OPM included a 127-page form, called Standard Form 86, which requires applicants for security clearances to answer questions on their financial histories and investment records, children's and relatives' names, foreign trips and contacts with foreign nationals, past residences, and names of neighbors and close friends, according to the filing.

The lawsuit names the OPM, its director, Katherine Archuleta, and its chief information officer, Donna Seymour. Also charged is KeyPoint Government Solutions, a provider of investigative and risk mitigation services to the OPM.

The federal personnel agency announced on June 4 that it had been the victim of a massive cyberattack that could have compromised the personally identifiable information of up to 4 million persons. It said that as the investigation was ongoing, other exposures of personal information could come to light. Some accounts have put the figure of people that could be affected as high as 18 million.

When KeyPoint, which handled the majority of federal background checks, announced in December that it had faced a computer network breach, a spokeswoman of the OPM said there was "no conclusive evidence to confirm sensitive information was removed from the system" but that the OPM would notify 48,439 federal workers that their information may have been exposed, according to the complaint.

But after the OPM hack became public, Archuleta and the OPM identified the misuse of a KeyPoint user credential as the source of the breach, it added.

Despite knowing about the KeyPoint breach and explicit warnings about shortcomings in its cybersecurity protocol and the dangers associated with those deficiencies, the OPM leaders chose not to shut down the agency's software systems, according to the employees.

"The combination of KeyPoint's cyber security weaknesses and the OPM's cyber security failures caused the massive scope of the OPM Breach," according to the filing by the AFGE jointly with one current and another former employee of the federal government, who had both received notifications that their personal identifiable information may have been exposed in the OPM data breach.

The petition asks the court for certification of the case as a class action and appropriate relief to the plaintiffs and class members, including actual and statutory damages. It also wants a ruling that KeyPoint "breached its duty to implement reasonable security measures to safeguard and protect" the personally identifiable information of the plaintiffs and the class members that was compromised in the OPM breach. The employees have asked for a jury trial.

KeyPoint and OPM could not be immediately reached for comment.

The woes of the OPM continue to mount after it was reported that a second breach compromised a database containing copies of Standard Form 86 questionnaires that's used by people seeking a national security clearance. The agency has come under scathing criticism from lawmakers and experts over its handling of the crisis.

On Monday, OPM said it was temporarily suspending its E-QIP system, a Web-based platform used to complete and submit background investigation forms, as a proactive security measure after a vulnerability was found in the system. The OPM said there was no evidence that the vulnerability had been exploited.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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Tags securityOffice of Personnel ManagementlegalgovernmentAmerican Federation of Government EmployeesKeyPoint Government Solutions

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