Update to this previous story.
The disclosure by U.S. officials that Chinese hackers stole records of as many as 4 million government workers is now being linked to the thefts of personal information from health-care companies.
Forensic evidence indicates that the group of hackers responsible for the U.S. government breach announced Thursday likely carried out attacks on health-insurance providers Anthem Inc. and Premera Blue Cross that were reported earlier this year, said John Hultquist of iSight Partners Inc. The cyber-intelligence company works with federal investigators.
The thefts are thought to be part of a broader effort by Chinese hackers to obtain health-care records and other personal information stored on millions of U.S. government employees and contractors from various sources, including insurers, government agencies and federal contractors, said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The data could be used to target individuals with access to sensitive information who have financial, marital or other problems and might be subject to bribery, blackmail, entrapment and other espionage tools, the official said.
“It is not only the scale that is of interest — 4 million employees — or even that the reason could be to use the information to recruit spies in America, but that people are now part of China-critical nodes in their cyber strategy,” said Rosita Dellios, an associate professor of international relations at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast.
“Usually in cyber strategy, it is critical infrastructure like energy grids, transportation, and satellites that are mentioned. Here we have a whole class of people crucial to U.S. security being targeted,” she said.
The hackers, thought to have links to the Chinese government, got into the U.S. Office of Personnel Management computer system late last year, according to one U.S. official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the investigation. The intrusion was detected in April and it took U.S. investigators a month to conclude that the files had been compromised. It was one of the largest breaches of government personnel data.
Indianapolis-based Anthem, which runs Blue Cross and Blue Shield health plans, said in February that hackers stole information on about 80 million customers, exposing Social Security numbers and other sensitive data. In March, Premera Blue Cross, a Spokane, Washington-based company that operates in the northwestern U.S., said information on 11 million people may have been exposed.