When does HIPAA require more than encryption?

From the mHealthNews archive
By Jim Obot

Encryption of sensitive electronic personal health information (ePHI) on mobile devices – including PCs – is often considered sufficient to protect that data well enough to achieve HIPAA compliance. However, it’s important that those handling this data understand the circumstances where encryption alone is not enough.

These situations do exist – and can be nightmares if they occur. The Department of Health and Human Services' HIPAA Security Rule describes satisfactory encryption as “an algorithmic process to transform data into a form in which there is a low probability of assigning meaning without use of a confidential process or key … and such confidential process or key that might enable decryption has not been breached.” That last part means that encryption is only adequate as a safeguard for HIPAA-protected ePHI if the situation is such that the encryption still secures the data.

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There are several scenarios where even encrypted data can be breached relatively easily and, unfortunately, there are many real world examples of each of these scenarios occurring. The trouble with encrypted data is that it needs to be decrypted to be useful to those who would access it legitimately, and the bad guys will look to take advantage of those moments when encryption’s defenses are down. Encryption is a powerful defense for data when a device’s power is off and for when the password is unknown and can’t be learned or hacked. But putting it that way, we’ve actually rather narrowly defined where encryption is effective.

Here are some cases where it isn’t.

1. The data thief gains the password needed to get around the encryption on an ePHI-filled device. This can happen when the password is stolen along with the device - for example, if a laptop is taken along with a user’s notepad containing the password needed to access ePHI. HIPAA requires not only encrypting sensitive data but also paying attention to the safety of passwords or any such methods of access. Bad password security effectively negates encryption. Too often we’ve seen a sticky note of passwords attached to a laptop – or even passwords written on USB devices themselves – which is a great example of an encryption that is not HIPAA-secure.

[See also: Debunking the most common myths about HIPAA]

In another type of case at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a physician was robbed at gunpoint and threatened into disclosing the pass codes on the laptop and cellphone that were taken from him, each of which contained ePHI. The doctor appears to have done all that could be done to comply with HIPAA as far as keeping data encrypted, but when forced to choose between personal health information and actual personal health, he made the reasonable choice. Still, the incident was a HIPAA breach, requiring patients and officials to be notified.

2. The stolen device is already running and an authorized user has already been authenticated. In this scenario, the legitimate user has already given his or her credentials and has a session accessing ePHI running when an unauthorized user gains control of the device. HIPAA contains measures to minimize the likelihood of this scenario, calling for the issue to be addressed with automatic log-off capability to “terminate an electronic session after a predetermined time of inactivity.” Still, authorized users should take care to close out sessions themselves if stepping away from their devices and leaving them unguarded.

3. A formerly authorized user becomes unauthorized, but still has access. This can happen when an employee quits or is terminated from a job but still possesses hardware and passwords to bypass encryption. A case such as this occurred at East Texas Hospital, where a former employee was recently sentenced to federal prison for obtaining HIPAA-protected health information with the intent to sell, transfer or otherwise use the data for personal gain. Criminals in these cases often use ePHI for credit card fraud or identity theft, demonstrating how important HIPAA safeguards can be to the patients they protect.

So how can ePHI be protected beyond encryption?

The safest security system to have in place when encountering each of these scenarios is one where the organization retains control over the data, and the devices containing ePHI are equipped with the ability to defend themselves automatically.

The fact is that employees will always seek and find ways to be their most productive, meaning that policies trying to keep ePHI off of certain devices are, for all intents and purposes, doomed to be burdensome and disrespected. For doctors and other healthcare staff, productivity trumps security. It’s best to take concerns around security off their plate and provide it at an organizational level. Organizations can implement strategies that maintain regular invisible communications between the IT department and all devices used for work with ePHI in a way that isn’t cumbersome to the user. Through these communications, the IT department can access devices to remotely block or delete sensitive data and revoke access by former employees. Software installed on devices can detect security risks and respond with appropriate pre-determined responses, even when communication can’t be established.

Given the high stakes of HIPAA compliance – where a single breach can lead to government fines and costly reputational damage – it would be wise for healthcare organizations to consider encryption only the beginning when it comes to their data security.

Jim Obot is CEO of Beachhead Solutions, a company that designs cloud-managed mobile device security tools. He has more than 30 years of technology industry experience in operations, customer support and senior management at prominent Silicon Valley firms (including fusionOne, Omnisky, Navigation Technologies and Apple).


[See also: Should encryption be a mandatory requirement of HIPAA?]