Stolen Laptop Costs Research Institute Millions

The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research (Feinstein) recently agreed to pay, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), $3.9 million to settle allegations that Feinstein violated the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules. This settlement confirms the OCR’s position that nonprofit research institutes are held to the same standards as all other HIPAA covered entities.

The OCR began its investigation, after Feinstein filed a breach report revealing that a laptop computer containing electronic protected health information (ePHI) had been stolen from an employee’s car. The laptop contained the ePHI of approximately 13,000 patients and research participants. The laptop was unencrypted.
In addition to the breach, OCR’s investigation determined that Feinstein failed to:

(1) conduct a risk analysis of all of the PHI held at Feinstein, including the PHI on the stolen laptop;

(2) implement policies and procedures for granting access to ePHI to workforce members;

(3) implement physical safeguards for the laptop;

(4) implement policies and procedures managing the movement of hardware that contains ePHI; and

(5) implement encryption technology or to ensure that an alternative measure to encryption was deployed to safeguard the ePHI.

HIPAA does not expressly require encryption of ePHI, however, covered entities and business associates, who do not encrypt ePHI, are required to document why encryption is not reasonable or appropriate. Covered entities and business associates that do not encrypt ePHI are also required implement measures equivalent to encryption to safeguard ePHI.

 
In addition to other violations, the OCR’s investigation revealed that Feinstein failed to document why encrypting the laptop was not reasonable or appropriate. Further, contrary to having measures equivalent to encryption for safeguarding ePHI, the OCR found that Feinstein lacked policies and procedures for the receipt and removal of laptops containing ePHI from its facilities and policies and procedures for authorizing access ePHI.

 
This settlement provides us with three lessons. First, it’s important to realize that research institutes are held to the same standards as other covered entities. To the extent a research institute maintains PHI, it is essential to develop adequate policies and procedures to protect the PHI. Failing to do so, exposes the institute to considerable risk. Second, encrypting ePHI goes a long way towards reducing liability. Had Feinstein’s laptop been encrypted to the NIST standard, Feinstein’s ePHI would have been secured and Feinstein wouldn’t have been required to report a breach. Instead, as is often the case, the OCR’s investigation revealed multiple additional HIPAA violations. By not encrypting ePHI covered entities and business associates risk not only the cost of a breach, but also the potential for added costs following an OCR investigation. Lastly, covered entities and business associates that don’t encrypt their ePHI, are required to document why encryption is not reasonable or appropriate. Failing to do so is a HIPAA violation and subjects covered entities and business associates to liability.

Steep Price Tag for Not Entering a Business Associate Agreement

North Memorial Health Care of Minnesota (“North Memorial”) recently agreed to settle charges that it violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules by essentially failing to enter into a Business Associate Agreement. Pursuant to the settlement, North Memorial agreed to pay $1,550,000. This settlement is a reminder of the importance of executing business associate agreements before sharing protected health information.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) initiated an investigation of North Memorial following their receipt of a breach report. The report indicated that a password protected laptop had been stolen from a locked vehicle belonging to an employee of North Memorial’s business associate, Accretive Health, Inc. (“Accretive”). The laptop contained electronic protected health information on 9,497 individuals.

OCR’s investigation revealed that North Memorial failed to enter into a business associate agreement with Accretive. Pursuant to the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, covered entities are required to enter into business associate agreements with all business associates to whom they provide protected health information. The investigation further revealed that North Memorial failed to complete a risk analysis for the electronic protected health information that it maintained, accessed, and transmitted across its IT infrastructure. Such an analysis, may have revealed the vulnerability posed by permitting protected health information to be stored on an unencrypted laptop.

Takeaways from this settlement:

  • Do not share protected health information with business associates without a valid business associate agreement in place. A valid business associate agreement almost certainly would have reduced North Memorial’s liability in this case.
  • Covered entities and business associates should perform HIPAA security risk analyses as required under the HIPAA Privacy and Security rules. Such analyses may uncover vulnerabilities that can be easily addressed.
  • Electronic Protected Health Information should be safeguarded with encryption technology. A high percentage of all breaches stem from lost or stolen portable devices. Encryption provides strong protection to covered entities and business associates in the case of a breach.

Premera Breach: Is HIPAA Compliance Enough?

Many health care businesses assume that HIPAA compliance guarantees protection from data breaches. Unfortunately, this is not a correct assumption.

The health insurance company Premera Blue Cross recently announced that it was the target of a sophisticated cyber attack.  It is estimated that the personal information of eleven million individuals may have been accessed by hackers.

In the days following the breach, the Seattle Times ran an article about an audit conducted by the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM)  and Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Premera’s operations prior to the breach.

Due to the health insurance coverage that Premera provides to federal employees, OPM and OIG had the right to audit Premera’s systems to ensure the security of the employees’ personal information.  According to the Seattle Times article, the federal agencies warned Premera of potential vulnerabilities with its information technology security prior to the breach.

What Did OPM and OIG Actually Find?

After reading the article, I assumed that the federal agencies found massive problems with Premera’s HIPAA security compliance.  Clearly, Premera would not have suffered the breach if it had complied with the HIPAA Security Rule, right?

Nope.

Page ii of the audit states the following:

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

Nothing came to our attention that caused us to believe that Premera is not in compliance with the HIPAA security, privacy, and national provider identifier regulations.

Instead, the security issues that the OPM and OIG found with Premera’s system appear to have involved more advanced features, including:

  • Lack of Piggybacking Prevention; and
  • Although Premera had a “thorough incident response and network security program,” it needed a better methodology for applying software patches, updates, and server configurations.  Note, that failing to appropriately patch software can lead to serious HIPAA violations, including OCR investigations and Settlements.  For more information about patching and HIPAA please read: “Failure To Patch Software Leads to $150,000 Settlement“.

Upon review of the audit report, it appears  that Premera did have fairly robust security safeguards.  For example, although it did not have the physical access control of piggybacking prevention, it had installed a multi-factor authentication key pad for each staff member.

The OPM and OIG certainly found issues with Premera’s security procedures, but the report repeatedly makes it clear that Premera:

  • Had adequate HIPAA privacy and security policy and procedures;
  • Updated its HIPAA policies annually and when necessary; and
  • Required employees to complete HIPAA compliance training each year.

HIPAA Compliance May Not Be Enough

The unfortunate takeaway from Premera’s data breach is that HIPAA compliance may not be enough to ensure security from attacks carried out by sophisticated hackers.

Although a covered entity’s security policies and procedures may technically comply with the HIPAA Security Rule, it is still critical to go further and address any known vulnerabilities that HIPAA may not even require to be addressed.

Contact Casey Moriarty for more information about HIPAA compliance.

Large Data Breach Highlights Risks from Foreign Hackers

Community Health Systems (CHS) has announced that the personal information of approximately 4.5 million patients has been breached.  According to CHS, the information includes patient names, addresses, social security numbers, telephone numbers, and birthdates.

Although the breached records do not contain the details of the patients’ treatment at CHS’ hospitals, the identifying information in the records still meets the HIPAA definition of “protected health information.”  Therefore, CHS will have to follow the HIPAA breach notification requirements.

According to CHS’ filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, CHS has hired the data security firm, Mandiant, to investigate the breach.  Mandiant has pointed blame at a group originating from China who apparently orchestrated the breach through the use of sophisticated malware.

This large breach should be another reminder for health care providers to safeguard their electronic systems and educate staff members on security policies and procedures.  The type of malware that contributed to the CHS breach can often be installed by a staff member who clicks on a link in an e-mail, or responds to an e-mail from hackers who pose as security personnel.  In addition, health care providers should consider the use of encryption technology that meets the HIPAA breach safe harbor standards.

When in doubt about a suspicious e-mail, phone call, or other communication, staff members should always check with the provider’s information technology personnel and the HIPAA Privacy Officer before taking any action.

If you have any questions about the HIPAA breach notification requirements, please contact Casey Moriarty.

Violation of Privacy Rule Leads to $800,000 HIPAA Settlement

Indiana-based Parkview Health System (“Parkview”) has agreed to settle potential violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule with the HHS Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) by paying $800,000 and adopting a corrective action plan to address deficiencies in its HIPAA compliance program. The resolution agreement can be found here.

According to the HHS press release, the OCR opened an investigation after receiving a complaint from a retiring physician alleging that Parkview had violated the HIPAA Privacy Rule. In September 2008, Parkview took custody of medical records pertaining to approximately 5,000 to 8,000 patients while assisting the retiring physician to transition her patients to new providers, and while considering the possibility of purchasing some of the physician’s practice. On June 4, 2009, Parkview employees, with notice that the physician was not at home, left 71 cardboard boxes of these medical records unattended and accessible to unauthorized persons on the driveway of the physician’s home, within 20 feet of the public road and a short distance away from a heavily trafficked public shopping venue. It is unclear whether any of these medical records were actually viewed by anyone else.

In addition to the $800,000 payment, Parkview entered into a corrective action plan that requires them to:

  • Develop, maintain and revise, as necessary, written policies and procedures addressing requirements of the Privacy Rule and the corrective action plan (“Policies and Procedures”).  Specifically these Policies and Procedures must at a “minimum, provide for administrative, physical and technical safeguards (“safeguards”) to protect the privacy of non-electronic PHI to ensure that such PHI is appropriately and reasonably safeguarded from any intentional, unintentional or incidental use or disclosure that is in violation of the Privacy Rule.”
  • Provide Policies and Procedures to HHS within 30 days of Resolution Agreement’s Effective Date for HHS’s review and approval.
  • Distribute Policies and Procedures to all Parkview workforce members.
  • Periodically review the Policies and Procedures and update them to reflect changes in operations at Parkview, federal law, HHS guidance and/or any material compliance issues discovered by Parkview.
  • Notify HHS in writing within 30 days if Parkview determines that a workforce member has violated the Policies and Procedures (“Reportable Events”).
  • Provide general safeguards training to all workforce members who have access to PHI, as required by the Privacy Rule.
  • Provide training on its approved Policies and Procedures to all workforce members.
  • Submit to HHS a final report demonstrating Parkview’s compliance with the corrective action plan.

Organizations should pay careful attention to the transfer and disposal of both electronic and paper patient records. The OCR has provided helpful FAQs about HIPAA and the disposal of protected health information. For more information about complying with the HIPAA Privacy Rule, please contact Jefferson Lin or Elana Zana.

 

 

Rady HIPAA Breach – Access Controls & Training

Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego announced this week that it has discovered two instances of impermissible disclosure of patient information – both disclosures arising from employees sending spreadsheets containing PHI to job applicants.  Surprisingly, Rady employees did not learn the lesson from their northern California neighbor, Stanford, which recently settled a lawsuit for $4 Million based on similar circumstances of a vendor releasing patient information to a job applicant.  In both the Rady situations (and at Stanford) identifiable patient information was sent to job applicants in order to evaluate those applicants’ skill sets.  The spreadsheets contained names, dates of birth, diagnoses, insurance carrier, claim information, and additional information.  Combined, the breach affected over 20,000 patients.

Rady has announced that it will take the following actions to prevent future events:

• Only commercially available and validated testing programs will be used to evaluate job applicants who will be tested onsite.
• We are increasing data security by further automating flagging of emails that may contain potential protected health or other sensitive information, and requiring an added level of approval before it can be sent.
• Rady Children’s is working with our email encryption provider to further strengthen our protection of sensitive data.
• Rady Children’s continually provides employees with education regarding privacy policies. We will be using these incidents as examples to better inform our leadership team and employees about the risks and the importance of the policies we have in place and train them in these new measures we are taking.

Though these steps are important, it is quite alarming that breaches such as these are still happening.  Why are job applicants receiving spreadsheets with patient information?  As Rady notes above, training exercises are commercially available.  Breaches, such as the one at Rady and at Stanford, reveal several flaws in HIPAA compliance – but two in particular rise to the surface.

1.  Access Controls.  The HIPAA Security Rule stresses the importance of access controls both internally and externally within a covered entity (and now business associates). Who gets access to the PHI, who gives that person access, and what access do they have?  The administrative, physical, and technical safeguard requirements all touch on whether access to PHI for workforce members is appropriate.  For example, a technical safeguard requirement specifically addressing access controls requires that covered entities, and business associates “implement technical policies and procedures for electronic information systems that maintain electronic protected health information to allow access only to those persons or software programs that have been granted access rights as specified in 164.308(a)(4).”  45 CFR 164.312.  Covered entities and business associates alike should evaluate who within their organizations actually need access to PHI to perform job functions.  Does the HR Department or an internal/external recruiter, arguably in charge of hiring new staff, need PHI in order to perform their job duties?  (Note, I do not opine here as to whether access to PHI was properly granted to the workforce members at Rady, as I lack sufficient information to make that judgment).  Determining if access to PHI is appropriate is both a requirement of the HIPAA Security Rule (though it is “addressable” you still need to address it!) and is a good mitigation tactic to avoid impermissible breaches, such as the one here.

2.  Training.  All covered entities and business associates are responsible for HIPAA Security training for all members of the workforce.  45 CFR 164.308.  Though training may vary depending on the workforce member’s use of PHI, all staff must be trained.  Training does not end following an initial session.  Periodic security updates are specifically identified in the Security Rule as an implementation specification.  These updates do not have to be limited to information about new virus protection software installed on the system. They can include valuable tidbits like case studies, HIPAA rule reminders, and HIPAA related headlines.  For some workforce members HIPAA may not be top of mind (specifically for those in business roles that may not deal with patients or patient information on a routine basis).  Providing periodic training updates and reminders, including examples of other HIPAA breaches (i.e. Stanford here) may be very useful in driving home how easy HIPAA breaches can be…and how expensive they are.

Avoidance of HIPAA breaches altogether is nearly impossible, but proper access controls and training can help mitigate against breaches such as the one that occurred here.

For more information about HIPAA Security contact Elana Zana.

 

$4.8 Million HIPAA Settlement – Patient Data on the Web

On May 7, 2014, HHS announced that New York-Presbyterian Hospital (“NYP”) and Columbia University (“CU”) agreed to collectively pay $4.8 million in the largest HIPAA settlement to date. The organizations settled charges that they potentially violated the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules by failing to secure thousands of patients’ electronic protected health information (“ePHI”).

NYP and CU operate a shared data network that links patient information systems containing ePHI. On September 27, 2010, the two entities submitted a joint breach report following the discovery that the ePHI of 6,800 individuals had been impermissibly disclosed due to a deactivated server, resulting in ePHI being accessible on internet search engines. The ePHI included patient statuses, vital signs, medications, and laboratory results.

HHS Office for Civil Rights’ (“OCR”) subsequent investigation determined that neither entity had conducted an accurate and thorough risk analysis or developed an adequate risk management plan to address potential threats and hazards to ePHI security. Further, OCR found that NYP failed to implement appropriate policies and procedures for authorizing access to its databases and failed to comply with internal policies on information access management.

NYP agreed to pay $3.3 million and CU agreed to pay $1.5 million. In addition, both entities agreed to Corrective Action Plans that require each entity to:

  • Conduct a comprehensive and thorough risk analysis;
  • Develop and implement a risk management plan;
  • Review and revise policies and procedures on information access management and device and media controls;
  • Develop an enhanced privacy and security awareness training program; and
  • Provide progress reports.

Additionally, CU must also “develop a process to evaluate any environmental or operational changes” that impact the security of ePHI it maintains.

This settlement again highlights the necessity for healthcare organizations and business associates to create and implement Security policies and procedures, and to engage in a security management process that ensures the security of patient data.

For assistance on the HIPAA Security Rule requirements, drafting and implementing Security policies and procedures, or general HIPAA assistance please contact Elana Zana or Jefferson Lin.

 

Stolen Laptops Lead to $2 Million in HIPAA Settlements

Last week HHS announced close to $2 Million dollars in HIPAA settlements with Concentra and QCA Health Plan due to the theft of unencrypted laptops.  However, the message from HHS is not just the importance of data encryption, rather its performance and follow through with security risk analysis and implementation of security policies and procedures.  Further, the close to $2 million in fines do not include the additional costs and time it will take both of these health care organizations to comply with the OCR corrective action plans.

Concentra

The larger settlement and corrective action plan involved Concentra Health Services, a subsidiary of Humana, Inc., which operates more than 300 medical clinics nationally, including urgent care, occupational and physical therapy, and wellness services.  Concentra agreed to a $1,725,220 settlement with HHS for potential violations resulting from the breach notification associated with a stolen unencrypted laptop.  Specifically, the Resolution Agreement identified the following two deficiencies:

(1) Concentra failed to adequately remediate and manage its identified lack of encryption or, alternatively, document why encryption was not reasonable and appropriate and implement an equivalent alternative measure to encryption, if reasonable and appropriate, from October 27, 2008, until June 22, 2012 (date on which a complete inventory assessment was completed and Concentra immediately took action to begin encrypting all unencrypted devices) (see 45 C.F.R. § 164.312(a)(2)(iv)).

(2) Concentra did not sufficiently implement policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations under the security management process standard when it failed to adequately execute risk management measures to reduce its identified lack of encryption to a reasonable and appropriate level from October 27, 2008, (date of Concentra’s last project report indicating that 434 out of 597 laptops were encrypted) until June 22, 2012 (date on which a complete inventory assessment was completed and Concentra immediately took action to begin encrypting all unencrypted devices) (see 45 C.F.R. § 164.308(a)(1)(i)).

Interestingly, while the Security Rule allows for flexibility in implementation for certain measures, including data encryption under 45 CFR 164.312, this high settlement amount indicates that healthcare organizations (including now business associates) who choose not to implement encryption standards must be able to explain themselves.  HHS, in the Resolution Agreement, faults Concentra not only for failing to encrypt the data, but in light of a decision not to encrypt, Concentra was faulted for failing to implement an alternative to encryption (though unclear what a reasonable alternative to encryption would be).  Now, not only does Concentra have this large settlement payment due to HHS, but it has to comply with the corrective action plan, which includes the implementation of a security management plan (with a security risk analysis baked in), encryption obligations, security awareness training, and annual reports to HHS.  And if Concentra fails to comply, HHS has reserved its right to impose civil monetary penalties (which were significantly increased under the HITECH Act).

QCA Health Plan of Arkansas

The smaller settlement of $250,000 was with QCA Health Plan of Arkansas, a healthcare insurance provider.  The impetus for this settlement and corrective action plan was the theft of an unencrypted laptop from an employee’s car which contained PHI belonging to 148 individuals (note that this breach affected less than 500 individuals).  The Resolution Agreement determined that:

A.  QCA did not implement policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations, including conducting an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI it held, and implementing security measures sufficient to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level to comply with 45 C.F.R. § 164.306 from the compliance date of the Security Rule to June 18, 2012.

B. QCA did not implement physical safeguards for all workstations that access ePHI to restrict access to authorized users on October 8, 2011.

C. QCA impermissibly disclosed the ePHI of 148 individuals on October 8, 2011.

Unlike Concentra, QCA was not directly faulted for failing to encrypt its laptops, or failing to implement a reasonable alternative. Rather, this settlement focused instead on the lack of sufficient HIPAA Security policies and procedures, inadequacy in conducting a security risk assessment, and the failure to implement security measures, most specifically physical safeguards. The corrective action plan is also noticeably different, with a focus instead on workforce training and reporting of workforce non-compliance, rather than on encryption requirements (the press release notes that QCA encrypted its laptops following the breach).

Though like most breach cases the simple solution is to encrypt the data to avoid an actual breach, these settlements expose the depth of compliance obligations and monetary consequences associated with the failure to securely protect the PHI.  Concentra and QCA, like other health care organizations who have settled with HHS, will have years of compliance reporting obligations and security management requirements that will likely create significant cost burdens in addition to the monetary settlement obligations.  HHS has made it quite clear in its press releases and corrective action plans, healthcare organizations and business associates must create and implement Security policies and procedures, and must engage in a security management process that ensures the security of patient data post the initial implementation.

For assistance on the HIPAA Security Rule requirements, drafting and implementing Security policies and procedures, or general HIPAA assistance please contact Elana Zana.

Skagit County Agrees to Pay $215,000 for HIPAA Violations

On March 6, 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) reached a $215,000 settlement with Skagit County in northwest Washington state for violations of the HIPAA Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules, according to terms of the Resolution Agreement.  This represents the first OCR settlement with a county government for HIPAA non-compliance. For two weeks in September 2011, the electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) for 1,581 individuals was exposed after the ePHI had been inadvertently moved to a publicly accessible web server maintained by Skagit County.  The accessible files included protected health information about the testing and treatment of infectious diseases.

The OCR investigation revealed that Skagit County failed to provide notification to individuals as required by the Breach Notification Rule and that the county failed to implement sufficient policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations. Further, Skagit County failed to provide necessary and appropriate security awareness and training for its workforce members.  As part of the settlement, the county has agreed to enter into a Corrective Action Plan to address deficiencies in various HIPAA compliance areas, including written policies and procedures, documentation requirements, training, and other measures.

This settlement highlights the importance for all covered entities and business associates, whether in the government or private sector, to implement policies and procedures to safeguard ePHI and, in case of a breach, to respond promptly and effectively. For more information about this OCR settlement or for assistance with HIPAA compliance, please contact Jefferson Lin or David Schoolcraft.

High Number of HIPAA Mobile Device Breaches – Time to Use Safe Harbor Encryption

Most breaches of electronic protected health information (ePHI) reported to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have related to the theft or loss of unencrypted mobile devices. These breaches can lead to potentially hefty civil fines, costly settlements and negative publicity (e.g. Stanford and Idaho laptops or APDerm thumb drive). Given the increasing use of mobile devices and the significant costs of breach notification, healthcare organizations and their business associates would be wise to invest in encryption solutions that fall within the “safeharbor” for HIPAA breach notification.

Encryption and the “Safeharbor” for HIPAA Breach Notification

Under HHS guidance, ePHI is not considered “unsecured” if it is properly encrypted by “the use of 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.  To avoid a breach of the confidential process or key, these decryption tools should be stored on a device or at a location separate from the data they are used to encrypt or decrypt.  Encryption processes “consistent with” (for data at rest) or which “comply, as appropriate, with” (for data in motion) the National Institute for Standards and Technology (“NIST”) guidelines are judged to meet the law’s standard for encryption.  If ePHI is encrypted pursuant to this guidance, then no breach notification is required following an impermissible use or disclosure of the information—this is known as the HIPAA breach notification “safeharbor”. [78 FR 5664]

NIST Guidelines for Data at Rest

The NIST guidelines for data at rest do not provide specific requirements for encryption technology– instead, it describes common storage encryption technologies (full disk, volume, virtual, and file/folder encryption) and offers recommendations for implementing a storage encryption solution. A main takeaway from this guide is that “the appropriate encryption solution for a particular situation depends primarily upon the type of storage, the amount of information that needs to be protected, the environments where the storage will be located, and the threats that need to be mitigated.” Despite the lack of bright-line rules, the NIST guide does offer some key recommendations, such as:

  • When selecting a storage encryption technology, consider solutions that use existing system features (such as operating system features) and infrastructure.
  • Use centralized management for all deployments of storage encryption except for standalone deployments and very small-scale deployments.
  • Select appropriate user authenticators for storage encryption solutions.
  • Implement measures that support and complement storage encryption for end user devices.

Encryption Technology for Apple iOS Devices: A Case Study

The good news is that the technology is available to properly encrypt ePHI without being too burdensome.  For instance, Apple’s popular iPhones and iPads fortunately have their own built-in encryption technology.  Every iOS device has a “dedicated AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) 256 crypto engine built into the DMA (Direct Memory Access) path between the flash storage and main system memory, making file encryption highly efficient.”  Setting a passcode turns on Data Protection, and the passcode becomes a key to encrypting mail messages and attachments (or other apps), using 256-bit AES encryption. Notably, Apple’s encryption technology (CoreCrypto Module and CoreCrypto Kernel Module) has been FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standards) certified, a standard that the NIST guide references and approves.

Based on the NIST guidelines for data at rest, the following are some basic steps for implementing a storage encryption technology solution specifically with Apple iOS devices:

  • Ensure that users have up-to-date devices and operating systems (e.g. iPhone 4 or higher running iOS 4 or higher).
  • Work with an IT administrator or security expert to manage deployment of iPhones.
  • Select appropriate passcode requirements to meet your security needs, including timeout periods, passcode strength and how often the passcode must be changed. The effectiveness of data protection depends on a strong passcode, so it is important to require and enforce a passcode stronger than 4 digits when establishing passcode policies.
  • Store/transmit the minimum amount of ePHI necessary to effectuate communication.
  • Disable access to Notification Center and Alerts from locked screen to prevent display of potentially sensitive data.
  • Revise and document organizational policies as needed to incorporate appropriate usage of the storage encryption solution.
  • Make users aware of their responsibilities for storage encryption, such as physically protecting mobile devices and promptly reporting loss or theft of devices.

For additional guidance on mobile device security, the HHS Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (“ONC”) has also provided helpful tips in “How Can You Protect and Secure Health Information When Using a Mobile Device?”.

As healthcare becomes more mobile, covered entities, business associates, and health information technology vendors should become familiar with the “safeharbor” for HIPAA breach notification and the NIST guidelines for encryption of data at rest and in transit.  For more information about the HIPAA “safeharbor”, encryption standards, or HIPAA in general, please contact Jefferson Lin, Lee Kuo or David Schoolcraft.