The news reports from today are that hackers from China recently penetrated into the online files of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in Washington, DC. OPM is the agency of the federal government that is responsible for the management of current and retired federal employees. It is the entity that pays my monthly annuity, arranges health insurance for my wife and myself, and is the custodian of my personal employee files and records. Until I begin drawing from Social Security at 62 or later, it is the only office where I am to make requests for changes or update information such as my mailing address or banking information for direct deposit. The breach of personnel files must apparently be an absolute treasure trove of information for Chinese military hackers. This, however, could be an actual breakthrough for some of us retirees– if the Chinese can’t figure out the difference between the Blue Cross “Basic” or “Standard” plans, then I will probably never know because OPM sure has hell has never done a good job of explaining it.
I must admit that when I first heard this news today, my initial reaction was one of concern for my own well being. The thought of the Chinese military having all of my personnel and retirement data is a bit disconcerting. I’ve had a hard enough time trying to ascertain exactly what my ex-wife is getting from my pension, and the last thing I need is to have yet another government mucking up the data. Of course, logic does eventually take over, and you come to realize that each individual person in the OPM database is but a grain of sand in the metadata being culled by these hackers. If China is getting any kind of leverage over the U.S. by stealing the personnel data of a retired law librarian, then we might be faring better in the cyber war than originally thought. Even Edward Snowden would look down his nose at my own data.
What I loved about the actual details of how the government uncovered the hack, is that apparently a government-designed system named “Einstein” discovered the breach. Seriously? Einstein? That’s what they named it? I’m glad it worked and all, but boy the federal government truly knows how to play the perfect straight man. Not that I don’t admire the great physicist and discoverer of the Theory of Relativity, but wasn’t there an official of any stature when this system was created who is aware of the popular put-down using Einstein’s name? “Hey, way to go, Einstein!“ The late night comedians are going to have a field day with this one. Maybe even a blogger or two.
At the moment, I am still waiting on some crucial information from OPM concerning a calculation about my ex-wife’s portion of my annuity. The only information I’ve ever received from them made no sense to me, her lawyer, nor my former HR officer, “Blue Eyes.” I did have one e-mail exchange with a faceless desk jockey, but the response I received back made things even more confusing. I decided just last week that since I wasn’t getting anywhere electronically, I would write an old-fashioned letter and drop it in the mail. My actions may have been prescient. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s possible that OPM might actually have switched to a completely manual system during this period of cyber insecurity. A boy can hope anyway. Unless the Chinese are also reading our letters through the postal system, I might get a chance at obtaining a resolution to my problem now.
According to the news reports, all affected employees and retirees will be notified by OPM in the coming weeks about whether any of their personal data was compromised. I will apparently know in time if my private data is currently being studied by a colonel in the People’s Army. In the meantime, I am going to assume that this turn of events might actually bode well for me. Since the Congress will no doubt hold hearings on this in order to capture headlines (it’s so much easier than passing legislation), I am going to use this blog posting as a way of trumpeting my own frustrations with OPM. I hereby encourage any House or Senate member to invite me to come and testify. I will speak candidly about how long it takes for retirees to get responses from OPM about routine questions. But fair warning: I will also be happy to point out how diminished appropriations have impacted agencies such as OPM from being able to operate in an efficient manner. The same legislators who will joyfully use this episode to score political points need to also come to the realization that they too are responsible for administrative dysfunction. Unless we properly fund federal agencies, these kinds of events will sadly be repeated.
The hack on OPM at first blush doesn’t seem to impact regular, every day Americans. Federal employees are regularly criticized by politicians for being lazy, overpaid, and contributing to a bloated bureaucracy. Yet, this same agency is responsible for administrating benefits to those who are on the front lines of the war on terror, keeping our skies and planes safe, and protecting the food supply. It even, GASP!, is responsible for certain benefits for members of Congress. An attack on the Office of Personnel Management is still an indirect attack on our nation’s security. Instead of pointing fingers and using this for political purposes, let’s hope the Congress can actually give the agency more resources to do its job rather than having it limp along as it has been.