FBI Director James Comey gave the 18 million estimate in a closed-door briefing to Senators in recent weeks, using the OPM's own internal data, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Those affected could include people who applied for government jobs, but never actually ended up working for the government.
The same hackers who accessed OPM's data are believed to have last year breached an OPM contractor, KeyPoint Government Solutions, U.S. officials said. When the OPM breach was discovered in April, investigators found that KeyPoint security credentials were used to breach the OPM system.
Some investigators believe that after that intrusion last year, OPM officials should have blocked all access from KeyPoint, and that doing so could have prevented more serious damage. But a person briefed on the investigation says OPM officials don't believe such a move would have made a difference. That's because the OPM breach is believed to have pre-dated the KeyPoint breach. Hackers are also believed to have built their own backdoor access to the OPM system, armed with high-level system administrator access to the system. One official called it the "keys to the kingdom." KeyPoint did not respond to CNN's request for comment.
U.S. investigators believe the Chinese government
is behind the cyber intrusion, which are considered the worst ever against the U.S. government.
OPM has so far stuck by the 4.2 million estimate, which is the number of people so far notified that their information was compromised. An agency spokesman said the investigation is ongoing and that it hasn't verified the larger number.
The actual number of people affected is expected to grow, in part because hackers accessed a database storing government forms used for security clearances
, known as SF86 questionnaires, which contain the private information of multiple family members and associates for each government official affected, these officials said.
OPM officials are facing multiple congressional hearings this week on the hack and their response to it. There's growing frustration among lawmakers and government employees that the Obama administration's response has minimized the severity of breach.
OPM's internal auditors told a House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee
last week that key databases housing sensitive national security data, including applications for background checks, had not met federal security standards.
"Not only was a large volume (11 out of 47 systems) of OPM's IT systems operating without a valid Authorization, but several of these systems are among the most critical and sensitive applications owned by the agency," Michael Esser, OPM's assistant inspector general for audits, wrote in testimony prepared for committee.
Katherine Archuleta, who leads OPM, is beginning to face heat for her agency's failure to protect key national security data -- highly prized by foreign intelligence agencies -- as well as for how slowly the agency has provided information.
Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., at a hearing last week told Archuleta: "I wish that you were as strenuous and hardworking at keeping information out of the hands of hacker as are at keeping information out of the hands of Congress."