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Are Ransomware Attacks A HIPAA Issue, Or Just Our Fault?

Posted on April 18, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

With ransomware attacks hitting hospitals in growing numbers, it’s growing more urgent for healthcare organizations to have a routine and effective response to such attacks. While over the short term, providers are focused mostly on survival, eventually they’ll have to consider big-picture implications — and one of the biggest is whether a ransomware intrusion can be called a “breach” under federal law.

As readers know, providers must report any sizable breach to the HHS Office for Civil Rights. So far, though, it seems that the feds haven’t issued any guidance as to how they see this issue. However, people in the know have been talking about this, and here’s what they have to say.

David Holtzman, a former OCR official who now serves as vice president of compliance strategies at security firm CynergisTek, told Health Data Management that as long as the data was never compromised, a provider may be in the clear. If an organization can show OCR proof that no data was accessed, it may be able to avoid having the incident classed as a breach.

And some legal experts agree. Attorney David Harlow, who focuses on healthcare issues, told Forbes: “We need to remember that HIPAA is narrowly drawn and data breaches defined as the unauthorized ‘access, acquisition, use or disclosure’ of PHI. [And] in many cases, ransomware “wraps” PHI rather than breaches it.”

But as I see it, ransomware attacks should give health IT security pros pause even if they don’t have to report a breach to the federal government. After all, as Holtzman notes, the HIPAA security rule requires that providers put appropriate safeguards in place to ensure the confidentiality, the integrity and availability of ePHI. And fairly or not, any form of malware intrusion that succeeds raises questions about providers’ security policies and approaches.

What’s more, ransomware attacks may point to underlying weaknesses in the organization’s overall systems architecture. “Why is the operating system allowing this application to access this data?” asked one reader in comments on a related EMR and HIPAA post. “There should be no possible way for a database that is only read/write for specified applications to be modified by a foreign encryption application,” the reader noted. “The database should refuse the instruction, the OS should deny access, and the security system should lock the encryption application out.”

To be fair, not all intrusions are someone’s “fault.” Ransomware creators are innovating rapidly, and are arguably equipped to find new vectors of infection more quickly than security experts can track them. In fact, easy-to-deploy ransomware as a service is emerging, making it comparatively simple for less-skilled criminals to use. And they have a substantial incentive to do so. According to one report, one particularly sophisticated ransomware strain has brought $325 million in profits to groups deploying it.

Besides, downloading actual data is so five years ago. If you’re attacking a provider, extorting payment through ransomware is much easier than attempting to resell stolen healthcare data. Why go to all that trouble when you can get your cash up front?

Still, the reality is that healthcare organizations must be particularly careful when it comes to protecting patient privacy, both for ethical and regulatory reasons. Perhaps ransomware will be the jolt that pushes lagging players to step up and invest in security, as it creates a unique form of havoc that could easily put patient care at risk. I certainly hope so.

Confusing HIPAA Compliance With Security

Posted on October 2, 2014 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Most people  who read this publication know that while HIPAA compliance is necessary, it’s not sufficient to protect your data. Too many healthcare leaders, especially in hospitals, seem satisfied with the song and dance their cloud vendor gave them, or the business associate that promises on a stack of Bibles that it’s in compliance.

I was reminded of this just the other day when Reuters came out with some shocking statistics. One particularly discomforting stat it reported was the fact that medical data is now worth 10 times more than your credit card number on the black market (even if John has argued otherwise). Why? Well, among other things, because medical identity theft isn’t tracked well by providers and payers, which means that a stolen identity can last for months or years before it’s closed down.

Healthcare is not only lagging behind other industries in terms of its hardware and software infrastructure, but the extent to which its executives give a care as to how exposed they are to a breach. Security experts note that senior executives in hospitals see security as a tactical, not a strategic problem, and they don’t spend much time or money on it.

But this could be a deadly mistake. As Jeff Horne, vice president at cybersecurity firm Accuvant, noted to Reuters, “healthcare providers and hospitals are just some of the easiest networks to break into. When I’ve looked at hospitals, and when I’ve talked to other people inside of a breach, they are using very old legacy systems – Windows systems that are 10+ years old that have not seen a patch.”

As if that wasn’t enough, it’s been increasingly demonstrated that medical devices — from infusion pumps to MRIs — are also frighteningly vulnerable to cyber attacks. The vulnerabilities might not be found for months, and when they are, the hapless provider has to wait for the vendor to do the patching to stay in FDA compliance.

So far, even the biggest HIPAA breaches — notably the 4.5 million patient records stolen from hospital giant Community Health Systems — don’t seem to have generated much change. But the sad truth is that unless hospitals get their act together, focused senior executive attention on the issue, and spend enough money to fix the many vulnerabilities that exist, we’re likely to be at the forefront of a very ugly time indeed.

HIPAA Applies To Those Who Don’t Know About It

Posted on May 17, 2012 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Now here’s a pretty how-to-do for HIPAA lawbreakers. According to a new appellate decision in California, people convicted of accessing patient records illegally can be punished whether or not they knew it was illegal.

The case, United States v. Zhou, concerned the acts of one Huping Zhou, a former research assistant in rheumatology at the University of California at Los Angeles Health System. After being fired from his job as a research assistant in 2003, Zhou accessed patient records without authorization at least four times (and obviously, got caught).  After some sparring over charges, the feds eventually prosecuted him for HIPAA violations.

For years, the case worked its way through the system, with Zhou taking the position that he didn’t know accessing the patient records was illegal, and for that reason should not be found guilty.

Last month, the case ended up in the United States District Court for the Central District of California last month. It took the judges only a few weeks to decide that yes, Zhou was responsible even though he may not have known that his data spying was illegal under HIPAA.  Wow.

The HIPAA provision the judges relied on was the following:

HIPAA provides that: “[a] person who knowingly and in violation of this part — (1) uses or causes to be used a unique health identifier; (2) obtains individually identifiable health information relating to an individual; or (3) discloses individually identifiable health information to another person, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).” 42 U.S.C. § 1320d-6(a).

And their analysis of Zhou’s defense did not go the way he had hoped. Again, from the appellate decision:

[T]he plain text of Section 1320d-6(a)(2) [of HIPAA]  is not limited to defendants who knew that their
actions were illegal. Rather, the misdemeanor applies to defendants who knowingly obtained individually identifiable health information relating to an individual, and obtained that information in violation of HIPAA.

In other words,  if you knowingly snoop into patient records, you’re on the hook even if you never knew HIPAA existed. (Note, I am not a lawyer or court-watcher, but this is how most legal commentators have interpreted the decision.)

While I like my privacy as much as anyone else, this case does trouble me. While it’s unlikely that a hospital staffer would think PHI peeping was OK, some healthcare workers — in settings such as, say, home care or a small mental health practice — might have no idea that the Department of Justice might come knocking at their door.

Wouldn’t it be more logical to prosecute the hospital for being so insecure that its data could be accessed by an angry ex-employee?  If it were my PHI, that’s where I’d be venting my wrath.