Six Healthcare Data Breaches That Might Make Security Pros Sick

Most of the healthcare industry's biggest compromises could have been avoided, experts say
The number of healthcare breaches in 2010 have outpaced other verticals -- including banking and government -- by as much as threefold. While not all of these breaches came via databases, the majority of them could have been prevented through better data access and governance policies -- policies that must be enforced at the database level, experts say.

Healthcare organizations seem particularly prone to problems on the inside of the organization, including malicious theft and unintentional loss of storage devices containing treasure troves of database information. Let's take a look at six of the biggest breaches from recent months -- and the lessons they might teach about data protection

1. Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center: More than 130,000 records were exposed this spring when Lincoln Medical's billing vendor, Siemens Medical Solutions, chose to send out a stash of information on seven CDs sent to Lincoln via FedEx. Completely unencrypted, the data contained on the disks was compromised when the envelope was lost in transit. Though Siemens and Lincoln have stopped the process of transporting sensitive material through overnight shippers, the damage from this incident was already done.

Lessons Learned: With so many methods for securing data in transit available today, this incident was wholly preventable with a little common sense. Information was copied from the database directly onto insecure media, with only flimsy password protection to keep the bad guys from busting into it. At the very least, simple encryption might have made the loss less painful.

2. University of Texas Medical Branch: Allegedly using a stolen identity to gain employment at UTMD's medical biller, MedAssets, for the purpose of perpetrating fraud, Katina Rochelle Candrick is suspected of helping herself to up to 2,400 UTMD patient records. Disclosed earlier this year, the insider breach was ferreted out when MedAssets was notified by law enforcement that a former employee had been picked up for identity theft. Candrick was booked for many more ID theft charges in cases around the country, totaling more than $1 million in losses.

Lessons Learned: Identity theft is big business these days, and as thieves catch on, they're beginning to devise more elaborate schemes to get their hands on data. Not only do organizations need to ensure they work to better screen those who will use the data, but they also need to ensure their vendors are as discriminating. And, of course, database monitoring keeps tabs on the activity of employees -- no matter who they are.

3. South Shore Hospital: A whopping 800,000 records containing sensitive, personal health, and financial information were compromised when South Shore's data management company, Archive Data Solutions, lost backup tapes containing copies of the hospital's most sensitive databases created between 2006 and early 2010. The files were slated for destruction prior to loss. They contained the mother lode for potential identity thieves: names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, patient health information, and even bank account data.

Lessons Learned: Unencrypted backup tapes have been a persistent threat to enterprise data for years now. Such media can hold vast stores of information and is small, portable, and regularly transported between multiple locations -- often leading to mishaps. Whether the information is due to be destroyed or stored for years, it makes sense to encrypt data prior to transport. It is also critical to understand that using a third party to manage sensitive backup documents never fully transfers risk to that third party.

4. Silicon Valley Eyecare Optometry and Contact Lenses: More than 40,000 patients were informed of a breach that exposed their sensitive health and identifiable information after Silicon Valley Eyecare was hit by burglars. The thieves stole the server containing the firm's patient database, which included health information and personally identifiable information, such as dates of birth and Social Security Numbers. The burglars broke in through a window, nabbing the server and a plasma TV; they were in and out within 50 seconds, according to the eye-care center, which recorded the theft on video.

Lessons Learned: Though the server did sit inside a locked room, it was likely visible from the window. The database that sat within the server was password protected, but unencrypted. To prevent these types of breaches from occurring, database stewards need to plan better layers of both physical and logical security. This means storing servers in secure, concealed locations and encrypting data in the machines.

5. Affinity Health Plan: This spring, Affinity informed hundreds of thousands of customers that it potentially exposed their personal information through the unlikeliest of devices: the office copier. The health insurance company apparently returned a copying machine to its leasing company without checking the information contained on its hard drive after extended use. All in all, the copier compromised 409,000 records.

Lessons Learned: With so many devices in the office connecting to the database and processing sensitive information, organizations must remain vigilant about how data is used and stored -- no matter what the electronic medium. Multipurpose copy machines are a particularly tricky prospect because they can copy and store both digital and paper format files, making it necessary for organizations to develop policies about data retention and to train employees to stick to those mandates.

6. AvMed Health Plans: This year has not been good for AvMed and security. In February, it went public with breach details from a late 2009 stolen laptop incident that it initially said exposed more than 200,000 records. By June, it had upped those figures to 1.2 million records. AvMed claimed in its press releases that the risk of fraudulent use of these records was low, but did not say whether the data was encrypted.

Lessons Learned: Laptops needn't be out in the field to be juicy targets for theft -- they just need to contain enough valuable records to entice thieves. In this case, the two laptops were stolen directly from AvMed's offices. A very large number of healthcare's data breach woes can be pinned to lost and stolen laptops.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.