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Postal Employees, You've Been Hacked. What Now?

Letter carrier Kevin Pownall delivers mail in Philadelphia.

Letter carrier Kevin Pownall delivers mail in Philadelphia. // Matt Rourke/AP File Photo

U.S. Postal Service and Postal Regulatory Commission employees face the risk of identity theft, following a hack of USPS personnel files, federal officials said Monday.

Employees will receive one year of free credit monitoring. Special assistance also is available through the Human Resources Shared Services Center, Postal Service officials said.

"We began communicating this morning with our employees about this incident" and have "apologized to them for it," USPS spokesman David Partenheimer said in a statement Monday.

Postal Regulatory Commission employees also are affected because their personnel data is stored in a payroll system that was penetrated, PRC officials told Nextgov.

"We were notified of suspicious activity in our information systems in mid-September," Partenheimer said in an email, adding that investigators are still trying to determine when the breach actually occurred.

USPS fully cleaned its systems days ago. After learning of the cyber strike, USPS "immediately began an action plan which included a full scale remediation plan this past weekend," he said.

The FBI is leading an investigation into the incident in concert with other federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security.

DHS first detected the hack.

"Recently, the DHS National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center became aware of a potential intrusion of the U.S. Postal Service’s network," DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee said in an email.

Breach Latest in String of Cyberincidents

This incident is one of many cyber assaults that have compromised sensitive details on federal employees in recent years. Hackers gleaned DHS employee data managed by federal employee background checker USIS; contractor-maintained data on participants in the federal retirement Thrift Savings Plan, and files on top secret security clearance applicants handled by the Office of Personnel Management.

A frustrated official affected by the USPS breach, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said, “I believe one major reason why data breaches occur is that U.S. companies are complicit in hiding details about what happens, thus preventing systemic corrective factors and the benefits of disclosure and sunshine.”

A Homeland Security official told Nextgov it would be premature to jump to conclusions on how to prevent a similar case.

DHS and FBI officials said for now they are unable to provide any further specific details about the breach.

The bureau is still working with USPS to determine the nature and scope of the incident, FBI officials said.

“Impacted individuals should take steps to monitor and safeguard their personally identifiable information,” the bureau said in a statement. “As this is an ongoing investigation, any additional comment would be inappropriate at this time.”

Employee data compromised includes potentially, names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, physical addresses, employment start dates and termination dates, emergency contacts and other personal information.

When alerted to the incident, DHS, per standard protocol, dispatched an emergency response team "to assess and mitigate any risks identified,” Lee said.

Neither Wind nor Snow nor ... Data Breaches

Some postal customers may also be caught up in the hack, although to a lesser extent.

Customers who contacted the USPS call center by telephone or email between Jan. 1 and Aug. 16 might have had their names, physical addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and other information stolen.

"At this time, we do not believe that potentially affected customers need to take any action as a result of this incident," Partenheimer, the Postal Service spokesman, said.

Financial transactions at post offices as well as on usps.com are not affected.  

"The privacy and security of data entrusted to us is of the utmost importance," Partenheimer said. "We have recently implemented additional security measures designed to improve the security of our information systems, including certain actions this past weekend that caused certain systems to be offline."

USPS officials said all Postal Service operations were functioning normally, as of Monday.  

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee leaders are voicing outrage over the delay in informing federal employees of the data breach.

"The committee understands the Postal Service has known about this attack since September and presented this information to Congress several weeks ago, but did so as a classified matter," Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Postal Service Subcommittee Chairman Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said in a statement.

The panel will be "seeking information about why the administration waited two months before making the news of this attack public and preventing victims from taking proactive measures to secure their own information. We have not been told why the agency no longer considers the information classified.”

Threatwatch Alert

Software vulnerability

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