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?"
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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."
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