Healthcare Information Technology

Warnings Issued Over Vulnerable Medical Devices

Warnings have been issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) about vulnerabilities in several medical devices manufactured by Silex Technology, GE Healthcare, and Phillips. If the vulnerabilities were to be exploited, an unauthorized individual could potentially take control of the devices.

Phillips Brilliance CT Scanners

In early May, Phillips alerted the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) about security vulnerabilities affecting its Brilliance CT scanners. Phillips has been working to remediate the vulnerabilities and has been working with DHS to alert users of its devices to help them reduce risk. There have been no reports received to suggest any of the vulnerabilities have been exploited in the wild.

Three vulnerabilities have been discovered to affect the following scanners:

  • Brilliance 64 version 2.6.2 and below
  • Brilliance iCT versions 4.1.6 and below
  • Brillance iCT SP versions 3.2.4 and below
  • Brilliance CT Big Bore 2.3.5 and below

See ICS-CERT advisory (ICSMA-18-123-01)

The Brilliance CT scanners operate user functions within a contained kiosk environment in the Windows OS. The vulnerability – CVE-2018-8853 – could be exploited to allow an unauthorized individual or kiosk application user to gain unauthorized elevated privileges and access to unauthorized resources from the underlying Windows OS.

CVE-2018-8861 is a vulnerability in the Brilliance CT kiosk environment which could be exploited to allow an unauthorized attacker or limited access kiosk user to break out of the containment of the kiosk environment, gain elevated privileges from the underlying Windows OS, and access resources from the operating system.

CVE-2018-8857 is a vulnerability associated with hard-coded credentials used for inbound authentication and outbound communication. Those credentials could be compromised, allowing access to the system to be gained.

CVE-2018-8853 and CVE-2018-8861 both have a CVSS v3 base score of 6.1, while CVE-2018-8857 has a CVSS v3 base score of 8.4.

The vulnerabilities cannot be exploited remotely and require user interaction. According to a statement issued by Phillips, “An attacker would need local access to the kiosk environment of the medical device to be able to implement the exploit.” If exploited, the attacker could execute commands with elevated privileges and gain access to “restricted system resources and information.” The vulnerability would require a low level of skill to exploit.

The vulnerabilities are considered low-risk, but under the company’s responsible disclosure policy, an advisory was issued to alert users to the risk and provide information to reduce risk to a minimal level.

Phillips recommends only using Brilliance CT products within the specifications authorized by Phillips, such as only using Phillips-approved software, system services, and security configurations. Physical controls should also be implemented to limit access to the devices.

Phillips has taken action by remediating hard-coded credentials for its Brilliance iCT 4.x system and later versions and will continue to assess further options for remediating the vulnerabilities.

Silex SX-500, SD-320AN Wireless and GE Healthcare MobileLink

Two vulnerabilities have been discovered to affect certain Silex Technology products and GE Healthcare MobileLink technology. The vulnerabilities, tracked as CVE-2018-6020 and CVE-2018-6021, have been assigned a CVSS v3 rating of 6.5 and 7.4 respectively. See ICS-CERT advisory (ICSMA-18-128-01)

The following products are susceptible to one or both of the vulnerabilities:

GEH-500 (V 1.54 and earlier), SX-500 (all versions), GEH-SD-320AN (V GEH-1.1 and earlier), and SD-320AN (V 2.01 and earlier). The following GE MAC Resting ECG analysis systems may use vulnerable MobileLink Technology: MAC 3500, MAC 5000 (E.O.L 2012), MAC 5500 and MAC 5500 HD.

The vulnerabilities would require a low level of skill to exploit and could allow an unauthorized individual to modify system settings and remotely execute code. ICS-CERT notes that public exploits for the vulnerabilities are available.

CVE-2018-6020 concerns a lack of verification of authentication when making certain POST requests, which could allow the modification of system settings. CVE-2018-6021 concerns an improperly sanitized system call parameter, which could allow remote code execution.

The following recommendations have been made by Silex/GE Healthcare:

To mitigate CVE-2018-6020 on GE MobileLink/SX-500, users should enable ‘update’ account within the web interface, as this is not enabled by default.  To prevent changes to device configuration, users should set a secondary password for the ‘update’ account.

Silex Technology and GE Healthcare have produced updated firmware to resolve the CVE-2018-6021 vulnerability for GE MobileLink/GEH-SD-320AN, which will be available for download from May 31, 2018 once testing has been completed.

NCCIS suggests users should minimize network exposure for control system devices and/or systems to ensure they cannot be accessed over the Internet. All controls systems and remote devices should be located behind firewalls and isolated from business networks. If remote access is required, a VPN should be used.

NCCIC has advised users to conduct an impact analysis and risk assessment prior to any attempt to mitigate the vulnerabilities.

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How to Defend Against Insider Threats in Healthcare

One of the biggest data security challenges is how to defend against insider threats in healthcare. Insiders are responsible for more healthcare data breaches than hackers, making the industry unique.

Verizon’s Protected Health Information Data Breach Report highlights the extent of the problem. The report shows 58% of all healthcare data breaches and security incidents are the result of insiders.

Healthcare organizations also struggle to detect insider breaches, with many breaches going undetected for months or even years. One healthcare employee at a Massachusetts hospital was discovered to have been accessing healthcare records without authorization for 14 years before the privacy violations were detected, during which time the records of more than 1,000 patients had been viewed.

Healthcare organizations must not only take steps to reduce the potential for insider breaches, they should also implement technological solutions, policies, and procedures that allow breaches to be detected rapidly when they do occur.

What are Insider Threats?

Before explaining how healthcare organizations can protected against insider threats, it is worthwhile covering the main insider threats in healthcare.

An insider threat is one that comes from within an organization. That means an individual who has authorization to access healthcare resources, which includes EMRs, healthcare networks, email accounts, or documents containing PHI. Resources can be accessed with malicious intent, but oftentimes mistakes are made that can equally result in harm being caused to the organization, its employees, or its patients.

Insider threats are not limited to employees. Any individual who is given access to networks, email accounts, or sensitive information in order to complete certain tasks could deliberately or accidentally take actions that could negatively affect an organization. That includes business associates, subcontractors of business associates, researchers, volunteers, and former employees.

The consequences of insider breaches can be severe. Healthcare organizations can receive heavy fines for breaches of HIPAA Rules and violations of patient privacy, insider breaches can damage an organization’s reputation, cause a loss of patient confidence, and leave organizations open to lawsuits.

According to the CERT Insider Threat Center, insider breaches are twice as costly and damaging as external threats. To make matters worse, 75% of insider threats go unnoticed.

Insider threats in healthcare can be split into two main categories based on the intentions of the insider: Malicious and non-malicious.

Malicious Insider Threats in Healthcare

Malicious insider threats in healthcare are those which involve deliberate attempts to cause harm, either to the organization, employees, patients, or other individuals. These include the theft of protected health information such as social security numbers/personal information for identity theft and fraud, the theft of data to take to new employers, theft of intellectual property, and sabotage.

Research by Verizon indicates 48% of insider breaches are conducted for financial gain, and with healthcare data fetching a high price on the black market, employees can easily be tempted to steal data.

A 2018 Accenture survey conducted on healthcare employees revealed one in five would be prepared to access and sell confidential data if the price was right. 18% of the 912 employees surveyed said they would steal data for between $500 and $1,000.

Alarmingly, the survey revealed that almost a quarter (24%) of surveyed healthcare employees knew of someone who had stolen data or sold their login credentials to an unauthorized outsider.

Disgruntled employees may attempt to sabotage IT systems or steal and hold data in case they are terminated. However, not all acts of sabotage are directed against employers. One notable example comes from Texas, where a healthcare worker used hospital devices to create a botnet that was used to attack a hacking group.

Non-Malicious Insider Threats in Healthcare

The Breach Barometer reports from Protenus/ break down monthly data breaches by breach cause, including the number of breaches caused by insiders. All too often, insiders are responsible for more breaches than outsiders.

Snooping on medical records is all too common. When a celebrity is admitted to hospital, employees may be tempted to sneak a look at their medical records, or those of friends, family members, and ex-partners. The motivations of the employees are diverse. The Verizon report suggests 31% of insider breaches were employees accessing records out of curiosity, and a further 10% were because employees simply had access to patient records.

Other non-malicious threats include the accidental loss/disclosure of sensitive information, such as disclosing sensitive patient information to others, sharing login credentials, writing down login credentials, or responding to phishing messages.

The largest healthcare data breach in history – the theft of 78 million healthcare records from Anthem Inc.- is believed to have been made possible because of stolen credentials.

The failure to ensure PHI is emailed to the correct recipient, the misdirection of fax messages, or leaving portable electronic devices containing ePHI unattended causes many breaches each year. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights’ breach portal or ‘Wall of Shame’ is littered with incidents involving laptops, portable hard drives, smartphones, and zip drives that have stolen after being left unattended.

How to Defend Against Insider Threats in Healthcare

The standard approach to mitigating insider threats can be broken down into four stages: Educate, Deter, Detect, and Investigate.

Educate: The workforce must be educated on allowable uses and disclosures of PHI, the risk associated with certain behaviors, patient privacy, and data security.

Deter: Policies must be developed to reduce risk and those policies enforced. The repercussions of HIPAA violations and privacy breaches should be clearly explained to employees.

Detect: Healthcare organizations should implement technological solutions that allow them to detect breaches rapidly and access logs should be regularly checked.

Investigate: When potential privacy and security breaches are detected they must be investigated promptly to limit the harm caused. When the cause of the breach is determined, steps should be taken to prevent a recurrence.

Some of the specific steps that can be taken to defend against insider threats in healthcare are detailed below:

Perform Background Checks

It should be standard practice to conduct a background check before any individual is employed. Checks should include contacting previous employers, Google searches, and a check of a potential employee’s social media accounts.

HIPAA training

All healthcare employees should be made aware of their responsibilities under HIPAA. Training should be provided as soon as possible, and ideally before network or PHI access is provided. Employees should be trained on HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules and informed of the consequences of violations, including loss of employment, possible fines, and potential criminal penalties for HIPAA violations.

Implement anti-phishing defenses

Phishing is the number one cause of data breaches. Healthcare employees are targeted as it is far easier to gain access to healthcare data if an employee provides login credentials than attempting to find software vulnerabilities to exploit. Strong anti-phishing defenses will prevent the majority of phishing emails from reaching inboxes. Advanced spam filtering software is now essential.

Security awareness training

Since no technological solution will prevent all phishing emails from reaching inboxes, it is essential – from a security and compliance perspective – to teach employees the necessary skills that will allow them to identify phishing attempts and other email/web-based threats.

Employees cannot be expected to know what actions place data and networks at risk. These must be explained if organizations want to eradicate risky behavior. Security awareness training should also be assessed. Phishing simulation exercises can help to reinforce training and identify areas of weakness that can be tackled with further training.

Encourage employees to report suspicious activity

Employees are often best placed to identify potential threats, such as changes in the behavior of co-workers. Employees should be encouraged to report potentially suspicious behavior and violations of HIPAA Rules.

While Edward Snowden did not work in healthcare, his actions illustrate this well. The NSA breach could have been avoided if his requests for co-workers’ credentials were reported.

Controlling access to sensitive information

The fewer privileges employees have, the easier it is to prevent insider breaches in healthcare. Limiting data access to the minimum necessary amount will limit the harm caused in the event of a breach. You should be implementing the principle of least privilege. Give employees access to the least amount of data as possible. This will limit the data that can be viewed or stolen by employees or hackers that manage to obtain login credentials.

Encrypt PHI on all portable devices

Portable electronic devices can easily be stolen, but the theft of a device need not result in the exposure of PHI. If full disk encryption is used, the theft of the device would not be a reportable incident and patients’ privacy would be protected.

Enforce the use of strong passwords

Employees can be told to use strong passwords or long passphrases, but unless password policies are enforced, there will always be one employee that chooses to ignore those policies and set a weak password. You should ensure that commonly used passwords and weak passwords cannot be set.

Use two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication requires the use of a password for account access along with a security token. These controls prevent unauthorized access by outsiders, as well as limiting the potential for an employee to use another employee’s credentials.

Terminate access when no longer required

You should have a policy in place that requires logins to be deleted when an employee is terminated, a contract is completed, or employees leave to work for another organization. There have been many data breaches caused by delays in deleting data access rights. Data access should not be possible from the second an employee walks out the door for the last time.

Monitor Employee Activity

If employees require access to sensitive data for work purposes it can be difficult to differentiate between legitimate data access and harmful actions. HIPAA requires PHI access logs to be maintained and regularly checked. Since this is a labor-intensive task, it is often conducted far too infrequently. The easiest way to ensure inappropriate accessing of medical records is detected quickly is to implement action monitoring software and other software tools that can detect anomalies in user activity and suspicious changes in data access patterns.

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House Committee Seeks Advice from Industry Stakeholders on Fixing Cybersecurity Flaws

The continued use of outdated software and the failure to patch vulnerabilities promptly is making cyberattacks on healthcare organizations too easy. This was clearly highlighted by the WannaCry ransomware attacks in May 2017. U.S healthcare providers may have escaped relatively unscathed, but that was not the case across the Atlantic in the UK. The NHS was hit particularly badly by WannaCry. Were it not for the discovery of a kill switch by a security researcher, it could have been a similar story in the U.S.

This week, Symantec published a report on a recently discovered threat group that has been attacking healthcare organizations for three years and accessing highly sensitive information. Lateral movement within a network has been made easy due to the continued use of outdated operating systems.

These are just two examples of several over the past couple of years and the attacks will continue unless action is taken to address the issue.

In the UK, a post-WannaCry assessment by the health industry’s governing body revealed the NHS is still badly prepared for similar attacks. Many vulnerabilities remain unpatched and outdated and unsupported operating systems are still widely used.

Healthcare organizations on both sides of the Atlantic have upgraded some systems but many healthcare providers still rely on legacy software and equipment. All too often there is a lack of visibility into all devices connected to healthcare networks which hampers the remediation of vulnerabilities. Patching all systems promptly remains a major challenge in healthcare.

Action is being taken to address medical device security although progress is slow. Recently, the U.S Food and Drug Administration announced a new plan which will require all medical device manufacturers to incorporate the capability to update their devices throughout the entire life cycle of the products. While such measures will certainly help to keep new medical devices secure, it will do nothing to address the problem with older devices.

The use of legacy software and outdated equipment will continue to leave healthcare organizations vulnerable, but all too often there is little alternative. Aging devices and outdated software continue to be used because there are currently no viable alternatives. Even when it is possible to update devices and operating systems, identifying and managing vulnerabilities is a major challenge, and one that comes at a considerable cost.

Healthcare providers are often forced to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine the value of continued use of certain technologies and the cost of remediating vulnerabilities. If the cost of updating and maintaining the devices is too high and there are no viable alternatives that provide the same benefits, the risks associated with the devices have to be accepted.

Even if manufacturers were forced to continue to provide updates to legacy software and equipment, the time and resources that would need to be devoted to cybersecurity would undoubtedly have a negative impact on the ability of manufacturer to develop new devices and more advanced treatments, which would have a negative impact on patients. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an easy solution.

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee is well aware of the problem and is now seeking help from industry stakeholders on how best to tackle the issue and improve cybersecurity.

“Though hard data about the exact costs are difficult to determine, one cybersecurity professional estimated that fixing a single vulnerability may cost an organization anywhere from $400 to $4,000,” wrote the Committee in its recent Supported Lifetimes Request for Information. “Considering the fact that many popular medical technologies leverage software and hardware with hundreds to thousands of known vulnerabilities, let alone unknown ones, vulnerability identification and management can quickly become a daunting task.”

“To understand the full scope of the challenge and potential paths to address it, we require insight from stakeholders of all sizes, from all parts of the health care sector.”  Input from industry stakeholders and others has been requested by May 31, 2018.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce Request for Information on Supported Lifetimes can be viewed on this link.

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Healthcare Data Breach Statistics

We have compiled healthcare data breach statistics from October 2009 when the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights first started publishing summaries of healthcare data breaches on its website.

The healthcare data breach statistics below only include data breaches of 500 or more records as smaller breaches are not published by OCR. The breaches include closed cases and breaches still being investigated by OCR.

Our healthcare data breach statistics clearly show there has been an upward trend in data breaches over the past 9 years, with 2017 seeing more data breaches reported than any other year since records first started being published.

There have also been notable changes over the years in the main causes of breaches. The loss/theft of healthcare records and electronic protected health information dominated the breach reports between 2009 and 2015, although better policies and procedures and the use of encryption has helped reduce these easily preventable breaches. Our healthcare data breach statistics show the main causes of healthcare data breaches is now hacking/IT incidents, with unauthorized access/disclosures also commonplace.

Healthcare Data Breaches by Year

Between 2009 and 2017 there have been 2,181 healthcare data breaches involving more than 500 records. Those breaches have resulted in the theft/exposure of 176,709,305 healthcare records.  That equates to more than 50% of the population of the United States (54.25%). Healthcare data breaches are now being reported at a rate of more than one per day.

Healthcare data breaches 2019-2017

Healthcare Records Exposed by Year

While there has been a general upward trend in the number of records exposed each year, there was a massive improvement in 2017 – the best year since 2012 in terms of the number of records exposed. However, while breaches were smaller in 2017, it was a record breaking year in terms of the number of healthcare data breaches reported – 359 incidents.

Records Exposed in Healthcare data breaches

Average/Median Healthcare Data Breach Size by Year

Average Size of Healthcare Data Breaches


Median Size of Healthcare Data Breaches


Largest Healthcare Data Breaches (2009-2017)

Rank Year Entity Entity Type Records Exposed/Stolen Cause of Breach
1 2015 Anthem, Inc. Affiliated Covered Entity Health Plan 78800000 Hacking/IT Incident
2 2015 Premera Blue Cross Health Plan 11000000 Hacking/IT Incident
3 2015 Excellus Health Plan, Inc. Health Plan 10000000 Hacking/IT Incident
4 2011 Science Applications International Corporation Business Associate 4900000 Loss
5 2014 Community Health Systems Professional Services Corporation Business Associate 4500000 Theft
6 2015 University of California, Los Angeles Health Healthcare Provider 4500000 Hacking/IT Incident
7 2013 Advocate Medical Group Healthcare Provider 4029530 Theft
8 2015 Medical Informatics Engineering Business Associate 3900000 Hacking/IT Incident
9 2016 Banner Health Healthcare Provider 3620000 Hacking/IT Incident
10 2016 Newkirk Products, Inc. Business Associate 3466120 Hacking/IT Incident
11 2016 21st Century Oncology Healthcare Provider 2213597 Hacking/IT Incident
12 2014 Xerox State Healthcare, LLC Business Associate 2000000 Unauthorized Access/Disclosure
13 2011 IBM Business Associate 1900000 Unknown
14 2011 GRM Information Management Services Business Associate 1700000 Theft
15 2010 AvMed, Inc. Health Plan 1220000 Theft
16 2015 CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield Health Plan 1100000 Hacking/IT Incident
17 2014 Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services Health Plan 1062509 Hacking/IT Incident
18 2011 The Nemours Foundation Healthcare Provider 1055489 Loss
19 2010 BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Inc. Health Plan 1023209 Theft
20 2011 Sutter Medical Foundation Healthcare Provider 943434 Theft

Healthcare Hacking Incidents by Year

Our healthcare data breach statistics show hacking is now the leading cause of healthcare data breaches, although healthcare organizations are now much better at detecting breaches when they do occur. The low hacking/IT incidents in the earlier years is likely to be due, in part, to the failure to detected hacking incidents and malware infections quickly. Many of the hacking incidents in 2014-2017 occurred many months, and in come cases years, before they were detected.

Healthcare Data Breaches - Hacking


Records Exposed in Healthcare Data Breaches - Hacking

Unauthorized Access/Disclosures by Year

As with hacking, healthcare organizations are getting better at detecting internal breaches and also reporting those breaches to the Office for Civil Rights. While hacking is the main cause of breaches, unauthorized access/disclosure incidents are in close second.

Healthcare Data Breaches - unauthorized access/disclosures


records exposed in authorized access/disclosures

Loss/Theft of PHI and Unencrypted ePHI by Year

Our healthcare data breach statistics show HIPAA covered entities and business associates have got significantly better at protecting healthcare records with administrative, physical, and technical controls such as encryption, although unencrypted laptops and other electronic devices are still being left unsecured in vehicles and locations accessible by the public.

healthcare theft/loss data breaches


records exposed by healthcare theft/loss data breaches

Improper Disposal of PHI/ePHI by Year

healthcare data breaches - improper disposal incidents


records exposed in healthcare improper disposal incidents


Breaches by Entity Type

Year Provider Health Plan Business Associate Other Total
2009 14 1 3 0 18
2010 134 21 44 0 199
2011 137 20 42 1 200
2012 155 22 36 4 217
2013 199 18 56 5 278
2014 202 71 41 0 314
2015 196 62 11 0 269
2016 257 51 19 0 327
2017 288 52 19 0 359
Total 1582 318 271 10 2181

OCR Settlements and Fines for HIPAA Violations

The penalties for HIPAA violations can be severe with multi-million-dollar fines possible when violations have been allowed to persist for several years or when multiple violations of HIPAA Rules have been allowed to occur.

The penalty structure for HIPAA violations is detailed in the infographic below:

Penalty Structure for HIPAA Violations

OCR Settlements and Fines Over the Years

The data for the healthcare data breach statistics on fines and settlements can be viewed on our HIPAA violation fines page, which details all HIPAA violation fines issued by OCR between 2008 and 2018. As the graph below shows, there has been a steady increase in HIPAA enforcement over the past 9 years.

HIPAA Fines and Settlements 2008-2017


How Much Has OCR Fined HIPAA Covered Entities and Business Associates?

In addition to an increase in fines and settlements, the level of fines has increased substantially. Multi-million-dollar fines for HIPAA violations are now the norm.

HIPAA Fine and Settlement Amounts 2008-2017


average HIPAA Fines and Settlements 2008-2017


Median HIPAA Fines and Settlements 2008-2017

As the graphs above show, there has been a sizable increase in both the number of settlements and civil monetary penalties and the fine amounts in recent years. OCR’s budget has been cut so there are fewer resources to put into pursuing financial penalties in HIPAA violation cases. 2018 is likely to see fewer fines for HIPAA covered entities than the past two years, although settlement amounts are likely to remain high and even increase in 2018.OCR Director Roger Severino has indicated financial penalties are most likely to be pursued for particularly egregious HIPAA violations.

State Attorneys General HIPAA Fines and Other Financial Penalties for Healthcare Organizations

State attorneys general can issue fines ranging from $100 per HIPAA violation up to a maximum of $25,000 per violation category, per year.

Even when action is taken by state attorneys general over potential HIPAA violations, healthcare organizations are typically fined for violations of state laws. Only a handful of U.S. states have issued fines solely for HIPAA violations

Some of the major fines issued by state attorneys general for HIPAA violations and violations of state laws are listed below.


Year State Covered Entity Amount Individuals affected Settlement/CMP Reason
2018 NY EmblemHealth $575,000 81,122 Settlement Mailing error
2018 NY Aetna $1,150,000 12,000 Settlement Mailing error
2017 CA Cottage Health System $2,000,000 More than 54,000 Settlement Failure to adequately protect medical records
2017 MA Multi-State Billing Services $100,000 2,600 Settlement Theft of unencrypted laptop containing PHI
2017 NJ Horizon Healthcare Services Inc., $1,100,000 3.7 million Settlement Loss of unencrypted laptop computers
2017 VT SAManage USA, Inc. $264,000 660 Settlement Spreadsheet indexed by search engines and PHI viewable
2017 NY CoPilot Provider Support Services, Inc $130,000 221,178 Settlement Delayed breach notification
2015 NY University of Rochester Medical Center $15,000 3,403 Settlement List of patients provided to nurse who took it to a new employer
2015 CT Hartford Hospital/ EMC Corporation $90,000 8,883 Settlement Theft of unencrypted laptop containing PHI
2014 MA Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island $150,000 12,000 Settlement Loss of backup tapes containing PHI
2014 MA Boston Children’s Hospital $40,000 2,159 Settlement Loss of laptop containing PHI
2014 MA Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center $100,000 3,796 Settlement Loss of laptop containing PHI
2013 MA Goldthwait Associates $140,000 67,000 Settlement Improper disposal
2012 MN Accretive Health $2,500,000 24,000 Settlement Mishandling of PHI
2012 MA South Shore Hospital $750,000 800,000 Settlement Loss of backup tapes containing PHI
2011 VT Health Net Inc. $55,000 1,500,000 Settlement Loss of unencrypted hard drive/delayed breach notifications
2011 IN WellPoint Inc. $100,000 32,000 Settlement Failure to report breach in a reasonable timeframe
2010 CT Health Net Inc. $250,000 1,500,000 Settlement Loss of unencrypted hard drive/delayed breach notifications

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HIPAA Social Media Rules

HIPAA was enacted several years before social media networks such as Facebook were launched, so there are no specific HIPAA social media rules; however, there are HIPAA laws and standards that apply to social media use by healthcare organizations and their employees. Healthcare organizations must therefore implement a HIPAA social media policy to reduce the risk of privacy violations.

There are many benefits to be gained from using social media. Social media channels allow healthcare organizations to interact with patients and get them more involved in their own healthcare. Healthcare organizations can quickly and easily communicate important messages or provide information about new services. Healthcare providers can attract new patients via social media websites. However, there is also considerable potential for HIPAA Rules and patient privacy to be violated on social media networks. So how can healthcare organizations and their employees use social media without violating HIPAA Rules?

HIPAA and Social Media

The first rule of using social media in healthcare is to never disclose protected health information on social media channels. The second rule is to never disclose protected health information on social media. (see the definition of protected health information for further information).

The HIPAA Privacy Rule prohibits the use of PHI on social media networks. That includes any text about specific patients as well as images or videos that could result in a patient being identified. PHI can only be included in social media posts if a patient has given their consent, in writing, to allow their PHI to be used and then only for the purpose specifically mentioned in the consent form.

Social media channels can be used for posting health tips, details of events, new medical research, bios of staff, and for marketing messages, provided no PHI is included in the posts.

Employees Must be Trained on HIPAA Social Media Rules

In 2017, 71% of all Internet users visited social media websites. The popularity of social media networks combined with the ease of sharing information means HIPAA training should include the use of social media. If employees are not specifically trained on HIPAA social media rules it is highly likely that violations will occur.

Training on HIPAA should be provided before an employee starts working for the company or as soon as is possible following appointment. Refresher training should also be provided at least once a year to ensure HIPAA social media rules are not forgotten.

HIPAA Violations on Social Media

In 2015, ProPublica published the results of an investigation into HIPAA social media violations by nurses and care home workers. The investigation primarily centered on photographs and videos of patients in compromising positions and patients being abused.

In some cases, images and videos were widely shared, in others photographs and videos were shared in private groups. ProPublica uncovered 47 HIPAA violations on social media since 2012, although there were undoubtedly many more that were not discovered and were never reported.

In most cases, the HIPAA violations on social media resulted in disciplinary action against the employees concerned, there were several terminations for violations of patient privacy, and in some cases, the violations resulted in criminal charges. A nursing assistant who shared a video of a patient in underwear on Snapchat was fired and served 30 days in jail.

It is not only employees that can be punished for violating HIPAA Rules. There are also severe penalties for HIPAA violations for healthcare providers.

Common Social Media HIPAA Violations

  • Posting of images and videos of patients without written consent
  • Posting of gossip about patients
  • Posting of any information that could allow an individual to be identified
  • Sharing of photographs or images taken inside a healthcare facility in which patients or PHI are visible
  • Sharing of photos, videos, or text on social media platforms within a private group

HIPAA Social Media Guidelines

Listed below are some basic HIPAA social media guidelines to follow in your organization, together with links to further information to help ensure compliance with HIPAA Rules.

  • Develop clear policies covering social media use and ensure all employees are aware of how HIPAA relates to social media platforms
  • Train all staff on acceptable social media use as part of HIPAA training and conduct refresher training sessions annually
  • Provide examples to staff on what is acceptable – and what is not – to improve understanding
  • Communicate the possible penalties for social media HIPAA violations – termination, loss of license, and criminal penalties
  • Ensure all new uses of social media sites are approved by your compliance department
  • Review and update your policies on social media annually
  • Develop policies and procedures on use of social media for marketing, including standardizing how marketing takes place on social media accounts
  • Develop a policy that requires personal and corporate accounts to be totally separated
  • Create a policy that requires all social media posts to be approved by your legal or compliance department prior to posting
  • Monitor your organization’s social media accounts and communications and implement controls that can flag potential HIPAA violations
  • Maintain a record of social media posts using your organization’s official accounts that preserves posts, edits, and the format of social media messages
  • Do not enter into social media discussions with patients who have disclosed PHI on social media.
  • Encourage staff to report any potential HIPAA violations
  • Ensure social media accounts are included in your organization’s risk assessments
  • Ensure appropriate access controls are in place to prevent unauthorized use of corporate social media accounts
  • Moderate all comments on social media platforms

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights has issued guidance on HIPAA social media regulations, detailing the specific aspects of HIPAA that apply to social media networks. A HIPAA compliance checklist for social media can be viewed on the HHS website.

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What is HIPAA Certification?

Many third-party vendors would like HIPAA certification to confirm they are fully compliant with HIPAA Rules and understand all aspects of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). So, is it possible to obtain HIPAA certification?

What is HIPAA Certification?

In an ideal world, HIPAA certification would confirm that all aspects of HIPAA Rules are understood and being followed. If a third-party vendor such as a transcription company was HIPAA certified, it would make it easier for healthcare organizations looking for such as service to select an appropriate vendor.

Many companies claim they have been certified as HIPAA compliant or in some cases, that they are ‘HIPAA Certified’. However, ‘HIPAA Certified’ is a misnomer. There is no official, legally recognized HIPAA compliance certification process or accreditation.

There is a good reason why this is the case. HIPAA compliance is an ongoing process. An organization may be determined to be in compliance with HIPAA Rules today, but that does not mean that they will be tomorrow or at some point in the future.

Imagine a healthcare provider contracts a third-party HIPAA-compliance expert to assess its policies, procedures, and technology to ensure that HIPAA Rules have been followed to the letter. HIPAA certification would only mean that the organization is in compliance at the point of assessment. Changes in technology, polices, procedures, staffing, updates to HIPAA Rules, and business practices could all easily render such a certification invalid.

HIPAA Training and Certification

HIPAA does not require employees to complete any specific training program and obtain HIPAA certification, only that employees must be trained on HIPAA Rules and must confirm, in writing, that they have received HIPAA training. For HIPAA covered entities and business associates that means training has been provided “as necessary and appropriate for members of the workforce to carry out their functions.”

Since HIPAA Rules are complex, HIPAA training companies are often used. The companies employ HIPAA compliance experts who teach healthcare employees the aspects of HIPAA that are relevant to their role in the organization, such as the handling of protected health information and allowable uses and disclosures of PHI.

HIPAA requires covered entities to implement a security awareness and training program for all members of the workforce, although employees must only confirm in writing that this has been provided. HIPAA certification for security awareness training is also not a requirement.

Any ‘certification’ issued will confirm that employees have completed training and potentially been tested on their knowledge of HIPAA Rules. That may be beneficial when seeking employment, but it is not recognized by any federal agency.

Third Party Audits Confirming HIPAA Compliance

It is common for potential business associates of HIPAA-covered entities to undergo audits by third party HIPAA compliance experts to confirm that their products, services, policies, and procedures meet HIPAA standards. The audits are useful for peace of mind as they confirm HIPAA compliance. However, there are no officially recognized private consultants or companies that offer such services.

Even if HIPAA certifications are issued by external auditors and assessors they have no legal standing. Audits only confirm that technical, physical, and administrative safeguards and company policies and procedures meet HIPAA requirements at the time of the audit.

In the event of an OCR compliance audit you could provide HIPAA certifications as proof that you have implemented a HIPAA compliance program, but OCR states on its website that “Certifications do not absolve covered entities of their legal obligations under the Security Rule. Moreover, performance of a “certification” by an external organization does not preclude HHS from subsequently finding a security violation.”

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PhishMe Rebrands as Cofense and Announces Acquisition by Private Equity Syndicate

PhishMe, the leading provider of human phishing defense solutions, has announced that from February 26, 2018, the firm will be known as Cofense. Along with the name change, the firm has announced it has been acquired by a private equity syndicate, which valued the firm at $400 million.

PhishMe was formed in 2007 with the aim of developing products and services to tackle the growing threat from phishing. Employees have long been viewed as the weakest link in security, yet the human element of security defenses was often neglected. Over the years, PhishMe developed its products and services to help companies improve their last line of defense and turn security liabilities into security assets.

PhishMe has helped thousands of organizations improve their defenses against phishing through training and phishing simulations. The firm has also developed a range of associated products and services including a reporting platform that has now been adopted by more than 2 million users, as well as incident response and threat intelligence services.

While phishing defense is still at the heart of the, the name change reflects the more comprehensive range of products and services now being offered and future plans for expansion of its enterprise-wide attack detection, response, and orchestration solutions.

The acquisition will help in that regard. With the backing of the private equity syndicate, the company’s finances have been secured and the firm is planning to expand and enhance its products and services and increase its global reach.

“This acquisition further strengthens the alignment between our management team, employees, and investors as we focus on building an enduring company,” explained Cofense co-founder and CEO Rohyt Belani. “With cybersecurity a top priority for organizations everywhere, our goal is to continue bringing innovative products to markets around the globe to help stop active attacks faster than ever.”

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What Covered Entities Should Know About Cloud Computing and HIPAA Compliance

Healthcare organizations can benefit greatly from transitioning to the cloud, but it is essential to understand the requirements for cloud computing to ensure HIPAA compliance.

In this post we explain some important considerations for healthcare organizations looking to take advantage of the cloud, HIPAA compliance considerations when using cloud services for storing, processing, and sharing ePHI, and we will dispel some of the myths about cloud computing and HIPAA compliance.

Myths About Cloud Computing and HIPAA Compliance

There are many common misconceptions about the cloud and HIPAA compliance, which in some cases prevent healthcare organizations from taking full advantage of the cloud, and in others could result in violations of HIPAA Rules.

Some of the common myths about cloud computing and HIPAA compliance are detailed below:

Use of a ‘HIPAA compliant’ cloud service provider will ensure HIPAA Rules are not violated

False: A cloud service provider can incorporate all the necessary safeguards to ensure the service or platform can be used in a HIPAA compliant manner, but it is the responsibility of the covered entity or business associate using the service to ensure that HIPAA Rules are followed. CSPs will not accept liability for misuse of their service/platform or misconfigurations by healthcare employees.

Cloud service providers are classed as conduits and a BAA is not required

False: Cloud services providers are considered business associates (see below) even if they do not – or cannot access stored data. The failure to enter into a business associate agreement prior to using the platform or service in connection with ePHI is a serious violation of HIPAA Rules.

A business associate agreement is required before de-identified PHI can be stored in the cloud

False: There are no HIPAA Privacy Rule restrictions covering the use or storage of de-identified PHI. De-identified PHI is not considered to be protected health information.

Physicians cannot use mobile devices to access ePHI stored in the cloud

False. There is nothing in HIPAA Rules that prevents the use of mobile devices for accessing data stored in the cloud, provided administrative, technical, and physical safeguards are in place to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI for any data stored in the cloud or downloaded to a mobile device.  However, some healthcare organizations may have internal policies prohibiting the use of mobile devices with cloud services.

Cloud service providers must retain PHI for 6 years

False: HIPAA-covered entities must retain PHI for 6 years, but that rule does not apply to cloud service providers. If a HIPAA covered entity stops using a cloud service, all stored data must be returned to the covered entity or should be permanently deleted. If the CPS is required to retain stored data to meet the requirements of other laws, the information must be returned or deleted when that time period has elapsed.

A cloud service provider cannot be used if data is stored outside of the United States

False: A cloud service provider can store data on servers located in any country. There are no geographical restrictions. However, HIPAA covered entities should assess the risks – by means of a risk analysis – before using such a cloud service, as data stored on servers overseas may not be subject to the same level of protection as data stored on U.S-based servers.

Cloud Service Providers and Business Associate Agreements

While cloud service providers have long been known to be HIPAA business associates, the introduction of the HIPAA Omnibus Rule in 2013 made this clearer. “A data storage company that has access to protected health information (whether digital or hard copy) qualifies as a business associate, even if the entity does not view the information or only does so on a random or infrequent basis.”

The HIPAA conduit exception rule does not apply to cloud service providers. Companies are only considered ‘conduits’ if they offer a transmission only communication services when access to communications is only transient in nature. Cloud service providers are not considered to be conduits, even if the service provider encrypts all data and does not hold the keys to unlock the encryption.

Consequently, a business associate agreement must be entered into with the cloud platform or service provider before the platform or service is used for storing, processing, or transmitting ePHI.

If the cloud service is only ever used for sharing or storing de-identified PHI, a BAA is not required. De-identified PHI is no longer PHI, provided all identifiers have been stripped from the data. (See deidentification of PHI for further information.)

Cloud Computing and HIPAA Compliance

Cloud computing and HIPAA compliance are not at odds. It is possible to take advantage of the cloud and even improve security, but there are important considerations for any healthcare organizations considering using cloud services for storing, sharing, processing, or backing up ePHI

Risk Analysis and Risk Management

Prior to the use of any cloud service it should be subjected to a risk assessment. HIPAA-covered entities and their business associates must conduct their own risk analysis and establish risk management policies.

Business Associate Agreements

Before any cloud platform or service is used in connection with ePHI, the service provider and covered entity must enter into a HIPAA-compliant business associate agreement. The use of a cloud service without a BAA in place is a violation of HIPAA Rules.

Service Level Agreements (SLA)

In addition to a BAA, covered entities should consider a service level agreement (SLA) covering more technical aspects of the service, which may or may not address HIPAA concerns. The service level agreement can cover system uptime, reliability, data backups, disaster recovery times, customer service response times, and data return or deletion when the BAA is terminated. The SLA should also include the penalties should performance fall short of what has been agreed.


Any data shared via the cloud should be protected by end-to-end encryption, and any data stored in the cloud should be encrypted at rest. Full considerations should be given to the level of encryption used by the CSP, which should meet NIST standards. While encryption is important, it will not satisfy all Security Rule requirements and will not maintain the integrity of ePHI nor ensure its availability.

Access Controls

Covered entities must ensure that access controls are carefully configured to ensure that only authorized individuals are able to access ePHI stored in the cloud. Prior to the use of any cloud platform or service, the administrative and physical controls implemented by the cloud service provider should be carefully evaluated.

Data Storage Locations

Covered entities should determine the locations where data is stored and risks associated with those locations should be evaluated during the risk analysis. Cloud service providers often store data in multiple locations to ensure fast access and rapid data recovery in the event of disaster. Data protection laws in foreign countries may differ considerable from those in the U.S.

Maintaining an Audit Trail

Healthcare organizations must have visibility into how cloud services are used, who is accessing cloud data, failed attempts to view cloud resources, and files that have been shared, uploaded, or downloaded. An audit trail must be maintained and logs should be reviewed regularly.

Cloud Benefits for Healthcare Organizations

Some of the key benefits for healthcare organizations from transitioning to the cloud are detailed below:

  • Linking a public cloud with data centers allows healthcare organizations to increase capacity without having to invest in additional hardware
  • The cloud is highly scalable – Capacity can be easily increased to meet business demands
  • Healthcare organizations can improve security by avoiding transporting ePHI on portable devices such as zip drives, portable hard drives, and laptop computers. The loss and theft of portable devices is a major cause of HIPAA data breaches
  • The cloud makes sharing ePHI with partners, patients, and researchers easier and faster
  • An unlimited number of data backups can be stored in the cloud. Data can be recovered quickly in the event of disaster
  • The cloud can help healthcare organizations decommission legacy infrastructure and improve security
  • The cloud allows healthcare organizations to reduce their data center footprints
  • Healthcare data can be securely accessed by authorized individuals in any location
  • The cloud allows healthcare organizations to offer and improve their telehealth services
  • The cloud supports the creation of an edge computing system to reduce latency and speed up data access

Choosing a Cloud Partner

While there are many cloud service providers that are willing to work with healthcare organizations, not all are prepared to accept liability for data breaches or violations of HIPAA Rules. Any CSP that will not sign a BAA should be avoided; however, not all cloud companies offer the same level of protection for stored and transmitted data. Willingness to sign a BAA is no guarantee of the quality of the service.

It is essential for a HIPAA covered entity to carefully assess any cloud service, even if the company claims it supports HIPAA compliance.

HIPAA-Compliant Cloud Platforms and Cloud Services

Over the coming weeks we will be assessing the services of a wide variety of cloud service providers to determine whether their platforms support HIPAA compliance.

For further information on specific vendors and to find out if they offer platforms that support HIPAA compliance, visit the links below:

Cloud Platforms

Cloud-Based Services

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Is Box HIPAA Compliant?

Is Box HIPAA compliant? Can Box be used by healthcare organizations for the storage of documents containing protected health information or would doing so be a violation of HIPAA Rules? An assessment of the security controls of the Box cloud storage and content management service and its suitability for use in healthcare.

What is Box?

Box is a cloud storage and content management service that supports collaboration and file-sharing. Users can share files, invite others to view, edit or upload content. Box can be used for personal use; however, businesses need to sign up for either a business, enterprise, or elite account.

Is Box Covered by the Conduit Exception Rule?

The HIPAA conduit exception rule was introduced to allow HIPAA covered entities to use certain communications channels without having to obtain a business associate agreement. The conduit exception rule applies to telecoms companies and Internet service providers that act as conduits through which data flows. Cloud storage services are not covered under the HIPAA conduit exception rule, even if those entities claim they never access any data uploaded to their cloud service. Therefore, cloud storage services can only be used if a business associate agreement is entered into with the service provider.

Box and the HIPAA Business Associate Agreement

Box is confident it has put appropriate security controls in place to ensure all customers’ data is secured, both in transit to Box and while stored in the cloud. The company was formed in 2004, although it took nine years for the company to make its move into the healthcare sphere. In April 2013, Box started signing business associate agreements with HIPAA covered entities and their business associates. Box only offers a BAA to HIPAA covered entities if they have an enterprise or elite account.

Box for Healthcare Launched

In addition to agreeing to sign a BAA and having its service verified as supporting HIPAA compliance by an independent auditor, the company has now launched its Box for Healthcare service. The Box for Healthcare service has been developed to integrate seamlessly with top healthcare vendors such as IBM, Microsoft, Apple, TigerText, eHealth Technologies, and EDCO Health apps. The service helps healthcare organizations coordinate care, collaborate with research organizations, and share information securely with third parties outside the protection of the firewall.

The service includes all the necessary security controls to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule including data encryption at rest and in transit, audit controls, and configurable administrative controls that allow customers to monitor access, usage and document edits by employees and third parties, and set appropriate access and authentication controls.

Is Box HIPAA Compliant?

Any cloud service can be used in a manner that violates HIPAA Rules, as HIPAA compliance is more about the people that use a product or service rather than the product or service itself. That said, Box has implemented a wide range of safeguards and controls to ensure data privacy and security. So, is Box HIPAA compliant?

Provided a BAA has been obtained before the platform is used to store documents containing PHI, Box can be considered a HIPAA compliant cloud storage provider. However, it is the responsibility of the covered entity to ensure that the service is configured correctly and HIPAA Rules are followed.

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