Security Breach: More Laws Needed. Let's Add Health Care

Over on InformationWeek, George Hulme is singing our tune:


But let’s just stick to health care. More than 1.5 million patient records at hospitals have been exposed by data breaches during 2006 and 2007, according to the 2008 HIMSS Analytics Report: Security of Patient Data, commissioned by Kroll Fraud Solutions. That begs the question: is the healthcare industry doing enough to protect the privacy of medical records?

The symptoms point to a diagnosis of no. According to the HIMSS report, those 1.5 million data leak victims don’t include breaches at other healthcare companies, home care providers, physician offices, or pharmaceutical companies. So this report is likely only giving us a peak at a sliver of the problem.

If that doesn’t send your blood pressure up, consider this: the hospitals surveyed are probably only aware of a small percentage of how many patients have been affected by lax hospital security, as only about 44 percent of hospitals that suffered a breach failed to let the patients know their records could be at risk to snoops.

Even more disturbing is what the hospitals didn’t say: all of the hospitals that disclosed being breached mostly cited unauthorized use of information and wrongful access of paper records. None reported having been hacked. The odds are that that’s simply not the reality: “Noticeably absent are breach sources associated with malicious intent, such as stolen laptops/computers, deliberate acts by unscrupulous employees, etc., supporting the lack of industry focus on fraudulent data breaches that masks the frequency and severity of the problem,” the report states.

No doubt. The trouble is, without proper intrusion detection and prevention systems in place, access and database log monitoring, and other controls, most hospitals probably wouldn’t know if they were successfully hacked.

There was plenty of silence when it came to financial breaches, prior to July 2003. That’s not because banks, credit unions, and retailers weren’t being hacked. It’s because they weren’t required to report any breaches until California enacted SB 1386, which required any company, where California residents were involved, to notify each of these victims if the firm suffered a security incident where certain kinds of financial information was, or could have been, exposed. Today, most states have similar laws in force.

Perhaps it’s time the healthcare industry be forced to do the same.

No argument here.  And the laws that have been recently proposed in Congress do not go far enough because of how they define a “security breach” and the standards they set for protection and notification.  When WellPoint had a massive web exposure that went on for over a year, was there any penalty?  When Finjan discovered another huge database online, what were the consequences for the health system that suffered the breach — and were those affected ever even notified?  To date, HHS has only penalized one entity, Providence, while others have escaped unscathed. HIPAA has been a drastic failure when it comes to security and enforcement and many states exclude HIPAA-covered entities from their breach notification laws.  One immediate improvement would be for states to stop excluding these entities.  It won’t improve security enough, but at least more people would find out when their sensitive data have been exposed, lost, or compromised.

It’s time for Congress to raise the standards and lower the boom despite pressure from lobbyists.

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