Four Key Steps When Evaluating Encryption For PHI Data Security

Posted on by Frank J. Rosello

Encryption is an important breach prevention tool. But to make the right decisions about how to apply encryption, healthcare organizations should take four key steps

The first step is to precisely identify where all protected health information is stored. Today, more than ever, PHI data can be found in biomedical devices, in iPads, in laptops, in servers, in databases – a wide range of things.  So the first step is to perform a comprehensive inventory in order to clearly identify where PHI data lies.

Second, organizations should assign tiers of risk based on where the data resides. Then, they should map where data flows, including transmission over the Internet. The final step, is to efficiently determine how to apply security controls, including encryption.

So what does both HIPAA and the HITECH Act have to say about encryption?

Both HIPAA and the HITECH act doesn’t mandate encryption but let’s step and if we really think about security in healthcare, there are at least four interlocking considerations for security. The first is clearly the breach notification rule – if you encrypt anything, you’re given a free pass, a get-out-of-jail-free card [encrypted data that’s breached does not need to be reported]. Second is the annual guidance [from] the Health and Human Services Department as part of the HITECH Act. Every year, there’s supposed to be guidance on how you should consider encryption. The third is clearly the HIPAA Security Rule, which is the cornerstone of information security within healthcare. And [under that rule, encryption] is still an “addressable” requirement [not required if an alternative reasonable protection is taken and documented]. … And the fourth is the [HITECH Act] meaningful use [electronic health record incentive program].

For HITECH Stage 1, there really wasn’t any explicit mention of encryption, but there was an implied mention, which is [a reminder that you must] conduct a security risk assessment. And that means if you conduct a security risk assessment … you get to know where your areas of most risk are, and therefore where you might want to encrypt. That was for Stage 1.

Stage 2 requires three things: The first thing is that EHR vendors should have the ability to provide you secure messaging for e-mail and other forms of communication with your patients or vendors or other partners. The EHR system must be able to do that for you. … The second thing in Stage 2 is each EHR vendor must be able to wipe out any data that exists on any viewing device, like an iPad or a tablet. So once you, as a doctor, have looked at patient information on your iPad, you must be able to, as an EHR vendor, wipe that out. So your iPad acts as a thin client. Or you can encrypt it [the EHR must, by default, encrypt any data that’s actually stored]; but most people will opt for wiping it clean. And the third piece is also a new, implied encryption challenge – and that is … a percentage of patients … must be able to download, view, or transmit their PHI. … So this means that the implied encryption piece is that you as a healthcare provider have to make sure and support the encryption mechanisms.

I think you really have to make sure that you understand what the vendor is providing to you in terms of tracking and disabling and enabling the encryption through login mechanisms, the ability to actually conduct encryption, and the ability to actually do other things that are around encryption that improve your process.

More than half of the major breaches reported so far have involved the loss or theft of unencrypted devices or media. So why isn’t encryption more widespread? Why are we seeing so many breaches of unencrypted devices?

Well, interestingly enough, there are some no-brainers that people should have for encryption. It is absolutely absurd that people do not have encryption for the following: All mobile devices, all easily-accessible servers and desktops. So by that I mean even in an office, it should be encrypted.

The other area where I think encryption has to be done is in terms of backup tapes. If you’re a hospital, say, and you generate a lot of data on a weekly basis, what you’re doing is you’re taking the data that you’re backing up on tape … and then shipping it out. Well, the problem with that is if you’re not encrypting that data, there’s a small chance that the [delivery] person could lose the tape. And it’s happened. And so there are some no-brainers with regards to encryption that you have to do: Backup tapes, mobile devices, laptops, and desktops or servers which are not housed in the data center.

So why isn’t that being done more commonly now?

You know, that boggles the mind. I think it’s a failure of governance. … The security officer in a hospital organization typically reports to the CIO. Therein lies the problem. The CIO is responsible for operational excellence, not compliance excellence or integrity monitoring. And so in this case, the fox is running the hen house. And of course, the CIO is going to really put all his or her dollars in operational performance as much as he or she can. … So here we have a governance problem, and I think the CEOs need to realize that the CIO should not be in charge of both operating IT infrastructure and monitoring that infrastructure; those should be separate.

So what are some of the core decisions that an organization has to make as it develops an encryption strategy?

So the first thing that you need to do is you need to identify where all your ePHI lies. We don’t really know in most organizations where all our PHI is – it lies in biomedical devices, in iPads, in laptops, in servers, in databases – a wide range of things. So first we do an inventory of where all our PHI lies.

Second, we assign tiers of risk to where this ePHI is. How risky is it based on where it sits? So this is part of the risk assessment. You would end up with, for example: 20 applications that are really risky, another 30 applications of medium risk, and 30 applications which are not as sensitive. … So once you’ve gotten through this risk assessment process, then you do the third thing: Conduct what is known as data flow mapping. And data flow mapping basically maps where your data is flowing from one point to the other. And the reason why that’s important is because if you’re transmitting data from point A to point B, a lot of times you might be actually using an external network or an external carrier like AT&T or Comcast. And if that’s the case, you’ve got to be careful about [those carriers] because they do not encrypt the data for you. Furthermore, if you’re using any applications in the cloud, you are clearly sending data over the Internet into the cloud. So how are your cloud vendors securing your data? Do they have the right physical facilities? Do they have the right administrative facilities? Do they have the right technical controls? And you really have to judge that. …

So once you’ve gone through those three steps, then you go to step four. And step four is: Now I understand my situation; I understand where all my data is that’s really sensitive; I know how it’s being transmitted; I clearly recognize that there are tiers of risk. And so now I can then use my precious resources … and choose from the myriad range of [security] controls that there are.

Environmental Intelligence, LLC through its partnership with Encryptics, delivers a licensed-based information security and delivery platform that gives users comprehensive protection and complete control over their data, both inside and outside of their network.

This unique security platform encrypts data as soon as it is created-before a transfer takes place-so there is never a vulnerable point where a breach could occur.  Private information never touches this Industry-First Trusted Peer-To-Peer server and remains secure in all states: at device, in transit, in use, and at rest.  In addition, we provide Digital Rights Management (DRM), which gives users the power to control the usage and availability of their data in real time along with Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tools designed to automatically secure outgoing messages at the enterprise level.

Don’t let a PHI data breach, like the one you just read about, happen to you or your organization.  Contact us today at [email protected] or call (866) 992-5559 to learn more about this technology and how it can transform your HIPAA compliance and information security efforts.


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