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2 Healthcare Data Breaches Show Importance Of Encryption

Patient data from Howard University Hospital and California Department of Child Support Services wasn't fully encrypted, and one security expert wants to know why.

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The theft of a laptop containing more than 34,000 unencrypted records from Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the loss of backup tapes containing records of 800,000 people enrolled in California Department of Child Support Services programs are just the latest in a string of healthcare data breaches that could have and should have been prevented, a data protection expert contends.

Last week, Howard University Hospital disclosed that it had notified 34,503 patients that a personal laptop of a former contractor was stolen in January from that individual's car. The laptop, according to the hospital, was password-protected, but the actual data was not encrypted.

That is disturbing to Mark Bower, data protection expert and VP at Voltage Security, based in Cupertino, Calif. "Why was their contractor allowed to use their own laptop, connect to the network, and download this data?" Bower wondered. "Why was that information not encrypted on the back end?"

[ Practice management software keeps the medical office running smoothly. For a closer look at KLAS' top-ranked systems, see 10 Top Medical Practice Management Software Systems. ]

He said that "data-centric" encryption is "becoming quite commonplace in industry," and not just in healthcare, where standards and penalties for data breaches are more stringent than in the business world. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy and security regulations spell out specific requirements not just for "covered entities," but also for business associates such as third-party contractors. "Maybe that's where this has broken down here," Bower told InformationWeek Healthcare.

"No evidence suggests that any of the patients' files have been accessed," according to a Howard University Hospital statement. "The former contractor downloaded the files to a personal laptop in violation of Howard University Hospital policy and federal health care rules."

The contractor was using "live" patient data to test an app, a serious no-no in the eyes of Bower. "Data should be de-identified," he said, adding that individual files, and not just storage media, need to be encrypted.

Hospital CEO Larry Warren said in the statement that Howard already has "put in new procedures to prevent similar violations in the future." All laptops issued to Howard University Health Sciences faculty and staff will be encrypted, and contractors will be required to encrypt not only laptops, but data, too. However, Warren said nothing about stripping patient data of personal identifiers.

In the California case, the state said FedEx lost the backup cartridges while returning the media to security contractor Iron Mountain from an IBM facility in Boulder, Colo., for a test of whether the technology companies could run the state's child-support system remotely in case of an emergency. The tapes, containing data such as names and addresses of children and their parents, Social Security numbers, information on health insurance coverage, and driver's license numbers, were not fully encrypted.

Bower said the common response to such a breach would be simply to encrypt the tapes. "It's a good idea, but it doesn't come close to getting to the heart of the problem," he said. "Should that data even be available to a contractor?" Bower wondered.

"There were a lot of areas where very simple approaches could have been taken, but they weren't," said Bower. "In this day and age, that's unacceptable."

The 2012 InformationWeek Healthcare IT Priorities Survey finds that grabbing federal incentive dollars and meeting pay-for-performance mandates are the top issues facing IT execs. Find out more in the new, all-digital Time To Deliver issue of InformationWeek Healthcare. (Free registration required.)

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Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/6/2012 | 9:44:32 PM
re: 2 Healthcare Data Breaches Show Importance Of Encryption
"Last week, Howard University Hospital disclosed that it had notified 34,503 patients that a personal laptop of a former contractor was stolen in January from that individual's car. The laptop, according to the hospital, was password-protected, but the actual data was not encrypted."

Why in the world would a that much patient data be left on the /personal/ laptop of a /former/ contractor?!? That's flat out inexcusable.

"No evidence suggests that any of the patients' files have been accessed,"

Really? How would they know this? If the laptop containing the data was stolen, how can you logically or honestly claim that the files have not been accessed?!?

With regards to the California case, given the amount and sensitivity of the data, why not send someone to IBM's facility with a metal briefcase full of tapes handcuffed to them? Sure, it's "old school" cloak and dagger, but they wouldn't get lost. As to encrypting the tapes, that's one of the first steps to take whenever you send media off-site, whether it's for tape rotation, compliance reasons or to deliver data to another party.

I forsee job openings at both of these organizations in very short order.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
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