Some big stories become defined by the people and the emotions connected to them. The earliest news memory burned into my gray cells occurred on November 22, 1963. Emerging from my third grade classroom, I recall the emotions of the clustering Walking home, I remember my mother in tears before our black-and-white RCA console TV, declaring to me and, I guess, heaven, “Someday there will be another Kennedy in the White House!” I’m not certain I have direct memory of Walter Cronkite pulling off his heavy glasses, having seen the kinescopes of that moment replayed periodically through the years.
We remember other big stories for their remarkable numbers and statistics. Not that it lacks emotional content, but the Bernard Madoff crime is notable for its sheer audacity of size, expressible in lurid statistics: 11 federal felonies, $65 billion in fraudulently stated gains, 150 years in the slammer. Who knows, the word “Madoff” could well replace the word “Ponzi” in the vernacular reference to really big frauds against innocent individuals.
OPM’s data breach, which has spawned its own hashtag — the new form of vernacular among what might kindly be called the vulgate — is a numbers story, leavened by the justifiable frustration and anger of the employees involved. Mike Causey likens this story to The Blob (one of my all-time favorite movies). Here the horror is underscored by numbers:
4.2 million feds and retirees affected
14 million more in another breach that claimed data from SF-86 forms
18 million Social Security Numbers may have been purloined, according to testimony from OPM Administrator Katherine Archuleta.
Two hour waits to reach someone on the telephone at contractor CSID
36 hours between OPM hanging out the notice of the credit monitoring services requirement and awarding a contract.
$21 million for the credit monitoring services so far.
15 points in the plan OPM came up with for fixing its cybersecurity vulnerabilities
1 direct report cybersecurity advisor working for Archuleta
This is one of those drip-drip stories in which details come out serially, although not all that clearly. From one of the congressional hearings we got a sense of how much more money OPM thinks it will need. In a kind of symmetry, Archuleta says OPM may need still another $21 million in 2016 to button up its systems. The agency has asked for a total of $32 million more for 2016, but is also saying the total cost of the breach could be as high as $80 million. That figure won’t buy a wing assembly for an F-35, but it’s a significant figure against OPM’s roughly $400 million spending authority.
In business, bad results tend to bring on one of two outcomes. Either your budget gets cut. Or the money becomes available to fix the problem, but you don’t get to spend it because you’re gone.
So where are all the numbers and this story headed? It’s not over yet. We still don’t know the full extent of how many names, Social Security numbers and SF-86 forms were taken. When that many people are affected, it’s hard to make it disappear. We still have yet to learn the motivation of the data thieves, which means millions will be holding their breath for a long time.
As an unseen benefit, every other agency is scrambling to make sure it’s not the next OPM. One departmental CIO told me as much just the other day. Software vendors will have Christmas in the summer as agencies get serious about two-factor authentication, continuous diagnostics and mitigation and the tools that go with them. Homeland Security is scrambling to get Einstein 3A into place. So, some silver linings.
No TV news anchor pulled off his glasses and put them on again to mask emotional turmoil over the OPM breach. But at least the lessons learned, as the government likes to say, will stick this time.
Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-9 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.