August Sees OCR Breach Reports Surpass 2,000 Incidents

Following the introduction of the HITECH Act in 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights has been publishing summaries of healthcare data breaches on its Wall of Shame.  August saw an unwanted milestone reached. There have now been more than 2,000 healthcare data breaches (impacting more than 500 individuals) reported to OCR since 2009.

As of today, there have been 2,022 healthcare data breaches reported. Those breaches have resulted in the theft/exposure of 174,993,734 individuals’ protected health information. Healthcare organizations are getting better at discovering and reporting breaches, but the figures clearly show a major hike in security incidents. In the past three years, the total has jumped from around 1,000 breaches to more than 2,000.

The recent KPMG 2017 Cyber Healthcare & Life Sciences Survey showed that 47% of healthcare organizations have experienced a data breach in the past two years, up from 37% in 2015 when the survey was last conducted. An ITRC/CyberScout study showed there has been a 29% increase in data breaches so far in 2017.

In contrast to other industries, the biggest cause of data breaches is insiders (Protenus/databreaches.net): Both deliberate actions by ‘bad apples’ and accidental breaches as a result of simple errors and negligence. Hacking (including malware/ransomware attacks) is the second biggest cause.

Healthcare Organizations Should Not Ignore the Threat from Phishing

Many healthcare data breaches occur as a result of phishing. Research conducted by PhishMe suggests 91% of data breaches start with a phishing email, with the attackers using phishing to obtain login credentials or install malware/ransomware.

A recent Global Threat Intelligence Report released by NTT Security showed the extent to which phishing is used to distribute malware. In Q2, 2017, 67% of malware attacks saw malware delivered via phishing emails.

Jon Heimerl, manager of the Threat Intelligence communications team, pointed out that while phishing is used extensively to spread malware, it isn’t often rated as one of the biggest threats. Heimerl said, “I have not seen any studies where CISOs are saying their No. 1 concern is phishing attacks. If you went around a room, it would likely be ransomware and DDoS as the No. 1 and No. 2 things on their mind, in my view.”

Countering the threat from phishing requires software solutions to block spam emails from being delivered to end users, security awareness training to teach employees how to identify email threats, and phishing simulations to put security awareness training to the test and identify vulnerable individuals in need of further training.

New Exploit Kit and Recent Ransomware Attacks Highlight Importance of Prompt Patching

Email remains the main delivery vector for malware, although the WannaCry attacks showed that malware can easily be installed if patch management practices are poor. The ransomware attacks were made possible thanks to the release of exploits by the hacking group Shadow Brokers and poor patching practices.  Prompt patching would have protected organizations against WannaCry.

Exploit kits also pose a threat. Exploit kits are web-based tools that probe for vulnerabilities in browsers and plugins. Exploits are loaded to the kit that are used to silently download malware when a visitor to a domain hosting the kit is discovered to have a vulnerable browser.

This week, a new exploit kit has started to be offered on underground forums at cut price rates. For as little as $80 a day, cybercriminals can rent the new Disdain exploit kit and use it to spread malware. Exploit kit activity has fallen over the past 12 months, although the threat of web-based attacks should not be ignored.

The Disdain exploit kit can leverage at least 15 vulnerabilities to download malicious payloads, including vulnerabilities in Firefox (CVE-2017-5375, CVE-2016-9078, CVE-2014-8636, CVE-2014-1510, CVE-2013-1710), Internet Explorer (CVE-2017-0037, CVE-2016-0189, CVE-2015-2419, CVE-2014-6332, CVE-2013-2551), IE and Edge (CVE-2016-7200), Adobe Flash (CVE-2016-4117, CVE-2016-1019, CVE-2015-5119), and Cisco Web Ex (CVE-2017-3823). While many of these vulnerabilities are relatively new, patches have been released to address all of the flaws.


To reduce the risk of exploit kit attacks, healthcare organizations should ensure all browsers are updated automatically and regular checks are performed to ensure all employees are using the latest versions. A web filtering solution is also beneficial to block access to domains known to be used for malware distribution, host exploit kits or phishing.

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OCR Data Breach Portal Update Highlights Breaches Under Investigation

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed it was mulling over updating its data breach portal – commonly referred to as the OCR ‘Wall of Shame’.

Section 13402(e)(4) of the HITECH Act requires OCR to maintain a public list of breaches of protected health information that have impacted more than 500 individuals. All 500+ record data breaches reported to OCR since 2009 are listed on the breach portal.

The data breach list contacts a wide range of breaches, many of which occurred through no fault of the covered entity and involved no violations of HIPAA Rules.

OCR has received some criticism for its breach portal for this very reason, most recently from Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) who said the breach portal was ‘unnecessarily punitive’ in its current form.

For example, burglaries will occur even with reasonable physical security in place and even with appropriate controls in place, rogue healthcare employees will access PHI out of curiosity or with malicious intent on occasion, with some considering it unfair for those breaches to remain on public display indefinitely.

OCR Director Roger Severino said last month that “The website provides an important source of information to the public, but we recognize that the format has become stale and can and should be improved.”

While the HITECH Act requires OCR to maintain the portal, the Act does not specify for how long that information must be displayed. One possibility for change would be a time limit for displaying the breach summaries. There was concern from some privacy advocates about the loss of information from the portal, which would make it hard for information about past breaches to be found for research purposes or by patients whose PHI may have been exposed.

This week, changes have been made to the breach portal. The breach list now displays all data breaches that are currently under investigation by OCR. OCR investigates all reported data breaches impacting more than 500 individuals. Currently, the list shows there are 354 active investigations dating back to July 2015.

The order of the list has also been changed so the most recent breach reports are displayed first – A much more convenient order for checking the latest organizations to report data breaches.

Data breaches that were reported to OCR more than 24 months ago along with breach investigations that have now been closed have not been lost, instead they have been moved to an archive. The archive can still be accessed through the site and is searchable, as before.

Since recent data breaches could be in the archive or main list, it has potential to make research and searches more complicated. OCR has tackled this issue by offering a research report containing the full list of breaches dating back to 2009.

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U.S. Data Breaches Hit Record High

Hacking still the biggest cause of data breaches and the breach count has risen once again in 2017, according to a new report released by the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) and CyberScout.

In its half yearly report, ITRC says 791 data breaches have already been reported in the year to June 30, 2017 marking a 29% increase year on year. At the current rate, the annual total is likely to reach 1,500 reported data breaches. If that total is reached it would represent a 37% increase from last year’s record-breaking total of 1,093 breaches.

Following the passing of the HITECH Act in 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been publishing healthcare data breach summaries on its website. Healthcare organizations are required by HIPAA/HITECH to detail the extent of those breaches and how many records have been exposed or stolen. The healthcare industry leads the way when it comes to transparency over data breaches, with many businesses failing to submit details of the extent of their breaches.

ITRC says it is becoming much more common to withhold this information. In the first 6 months of 2017, 67% of data breach notifications and public notices did not include the number of records exposed, which is a 13% increase year on year and a substantial increase from the 10-year average of 43%. The lack of full information about data breaches makes it harder to produce meaningful statistics and assess the impact of breaches.

81.5% of healthcare industry data breach reports included the number of people impacted – a similar level to 2016. ITRC points out that does not mean healthcare organizations are failing to provide full reports, only that HITECH/HIPAA regulations do not require details of breaches of employee information to be reported.

The OCR breach portal shows healthcare industry data breaches in the year to June 30, 2017 increased by 14% year on year. 169 breaches were reported in the first six months of 2017 compared to 148 in the same period in 2016.

Hacking is Still the Biggest Cause of U.S Data Breaches

The biggest cause of U.S data breaches is still hacking according to the report, accounting for 63% of data breaches reported in the first half of the year across all industries – and increase of 5% year on year. Phishing, ransomware, malware and skimming were also included in the totals for hacking. 47.7% of those breaches involved phishing and 18.5% involved ransomware or malware.

The second biggest causes of U.S. data breaches were employee error, negligence and improper disposal, accounting for 9% of the total, followed by accidental exposure on the Internet – 7% of breaches.

The OCR breach portal shows 63 healthcare data breaches were attributed to hacking/IT incidents – 37% of the half yearly total. That represents a rise of 19% from last year.

In close second place is unauthorized access/disclosure – 58 incidents or 35% of the total. A 14% decrease year on year. In third place is loss/theft of devices – 40 incidents or 24% of all healthcare data breaches. A 4% fall year on year. The remaining 4% of healthcare data breaches – 7 incidents – were caused by improper disposal of PHI/ePHI.

Matt Cullina, CEO of CyberScout, said “All these trends point to the need for businesses to take steps to manage their risk, prepare for common data breach scenarios, and get cyber insurance protection.”

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Funding for ONC Office of the Chief Privacy Officer to be Withdrawn in 2018

The cuts to the budget of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) mean the agency must make some big changes, one of which will be the withdrawal of funding for the Office of the Chief Privacy Officer. ONC National Coordinator Don Rucker, M.D., has confirmed that the office will be closed out in fiscal year 2018.

Deven McGraw, the Deputy Director for Health Information Privacy, has been serving as Acting Chief Privacy Officer until a permanent replacement for Lucia Savage is found, following her departure in January. It is now looking highly unlikely that a permanent replacement will be sought.

One of the key roles of the Chief Privacy Officer is to ensure that privacy and security standards are addressed and health data is appropriately protected. The Chief Privacy Officer also advises the National Coordinator for Health IT on privacy and security policies covering electronic health information. However, Rucker does not believe it is necessary for the ONC to have an office dedicated to privacy and security as other agencies in the HHS could assist and take on additional tasks.

The HITECH Act required ONC to appoint a Chief Privacy Officer; however, an alternative is for ONC to request personnel from other HHS agencies. Faced with a $22 million cut in its operating budget, ONC will turn to the HHS’ Office for Civil Rights to assist with privacy functions with the ONC only maintaining ‘limited support’ for the position of Chief Privacy Officer.

The Chief Privacy Officer has been instrumental in improving understanding of HIPAA Rules with respect to privacy since the HITECH Act was passed. Many healthcare organizations have impeded the flow of health information due to a misunderstanding of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. The Chief Privacy Officer has helped to explain that HIPAA Rules do not prevent the exchange of health information – They only ensure information is shared securely and the privacy of patients is preserved. These outreach efforts are likely to be impacted by the loss of the Office of the Chief Privacy Officer.

Rucker explained that discussions are now taking place between ONC and OCR to determine how these and other tasks will be performed, but explained that privacy and security are implicit in all aspects of the work performed by ONC and that will not change.

Cutbacks are inevitable with the trimming of the ONC’s budget but Rucker has explained that the HHS will continue to ensure privacy and security issues are dealt with and efforts to improve understanding of the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules will also continue.

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Indiana Senate Passes New Law on Abandoned Medical Records

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires healthcare providers (and other covered entities) to implement reasonable administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to protect the privacy of patients’ protected health information.

HIPAA applies to electronic protected health information (ePHI) and physical records. Safeguards must be implemented to protect all forms of PHI at rest and in transit and when PHI is no longer required, covered entities must ensure it is disposed of securely.

For electronic protected health information that means data must be permanently deleted so it cannot be reconstructed and recovered. To satisfy HIPAA requirements, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recommends clearing, purging or destroying electronic media used to store ePHI. Clearing involves the use of software to overwrite data, purging involves degaussing or exposing media to strong magnetic fields to destroy data. Destruction of electronic media could involve pulverization, melting, disintegration, shredding or incineration.

For physical PHI, OCR recommends shredding, burning, pulping, or pulverization to render PHI unreadable and indecipherable and to ensure the data cannot be reconstructed.

If PHI is not disposed of in accordance with HIPAA Rules, covered entities can face heavy financial penalties. Those penalties are decided by OCR, although state attorneys general can also fine covered entities since the introduction of the Health Information Technology for Clinical and Economic Health (HITECH) Act.

While state attorneys general can take action against covered entities for HIPAA violations that impact state residents, few have exercised that right – Only Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and Indiana all done so since the passing of the HITECH Act.

Even though few states are taking action against covered entities for HIPAA violations as allowed by the HITECH Act, many states have introduced laws to protect state residents in the event of a data breach.

In Indiana, a new state law has been recently passed that allows action to be taken against organizations that fail to dispose of medical records securely.

Indiana Updates Legislation Covering Abandoned Medical Records

In Indiana, legislation has previously been introduced covering ‘abandoned records’. If medical records are abandoned, such as being dumped or disposed of without first rendering them unreadable, action can be taken against the organization concerned.

Abandoned records are those which have been “voluntarily surrendered, relinquished, or disclaimed by the health care provider or regulated professional, with no intention of reclaiming or regaining possession.” The state law previously only covered physical records, although a new Senate Bill (SB 549) has recently been unanimously passed that has expanded the definition to also include ePHI stored in databases. The definition of ‘abandoned records’ has also been expanded to include those that have been “recklessly or negligently treated such that an unauthorized person could obtain access or possession” to those records.”

While there are exceptions under SB 549 for organizations that maintain their own data security procedures under HIPAA and other federal legislation, the new law closes a loophole for organizations that are no longer HIPAA covered entities. In recent years, there have been numerous cases of healthcare organizations going out of business and subsequently abandoning patients’ files. SB 549 allows the state attorney general to take action against HIPAA covered entities that have gone out of business if they are discovered to have abandoned PHI or disposed of ePHI incorrectly.

The new legislation came into effect on July 1, 2017. The new law allows the Indiana attorney general to file actions against the organization concerned and recover the cost of securing and disposing of the abandoned records. That should serve as a deterrent and will help to keep state residents’ PHI private.

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