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China has scored an intelligence coup by breaking into the Office of Personnel Management database and making off with the files on millions of current and former government officials. Estimates of the number of officials whose information was taken range from a low of 4 million to 14 million. Of course, the Chinese are not going to be interested in every clerk in the bowels of the Department of Agriculture. But they will have gained access, according to reports, to the background information on all those who held sensitive national security positions in the government.
For those curious what the information contained in these files might be, here is the form for national security clearances. It basically asks for every place you have ever lived, everywhere you have gone to school and worked, any groups you have joined, the names of anyone who has known you in any of these stages of your life, extended family members, contacts with foreigners, medical information, legal affairs, and so on. The form is 120 pages.
It is then supplemented by an FBI background investigation, which collects all information, truthful or not, unfiltered and unevaluated, about the official. As someone who has held these type of clearances, I don’t have a right to see my own file — although now I guess I can ask the Chinese for it.
So let’s put the minds of Ricochet to work to figure out how extensive the damage to the nation is from losing this information. Suppose our agencies had hacked into the Chinese, Russian, or Iranian personnel databases. What could we do with the information? Some off-the-cuff ideas:
1. Use the information to roll up any spy networks in the US by tracing connections, both personal and public, between the official and people here.
2. Blackmail. Find files with embarrassing information to try to turn the subjects into spies for our side. Or find relatives and close friends of theirs in our country to pressure.
3. Harassment. Use the information to disrupt the credit histories, accounts, and electronic identities of decision-makers in other countries, or leak the information to embarrass them.