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OCR Offers Advice on Managing Malicious Insider Threats

Healthcare organizations can implement robust defenses to prevent hackers from gaining access to sensitive data, but not all threats come from outside the organization. It is also important to implement policies, procedures, and technical solutions to detect and prevent attacks from within.

Healthcare employees require access to protected health information (PHI) to perform their work duties. While those individuals may be deemed trustworthy, providing access to PHI exposes the organization to risk. Workers can go rogue and access patient information without authorization and could easily abuse their access rights and steal patient data for financial gain.

There will always be the occasional bad apple, but the 2019 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report suggests the problem is far more prevalent. According to the report, 59% of all security incidents and data breaches analyzed for the report were caused by insiders.

Many of those breaches were due to mistakes made by healthcare employees, but a significant percentage were caused by malicious insiders who stole patient information for financial gain. Common malicious insider attacks include accessing the medical records of celebrities for financial gain and stealing patient data to commit identity theft and fraud.

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These attacks can have grave implications for patients, who may suffer huge losses from identity theft and other misuses of their PHI. The attacks can also cause financial and reputational harm to the healthcare organization and expose the organization to regulatory fines. Memorial Healthcare System was fined $5.5 million for HIPAA violations related to the inappropriate access and theft of health data by some of its employees in 2012.

This week, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has issued advice to healthcare organizations on how they can reduce the risk of insider breaches and ensure they are detected rapidly when they do occur.

In its 2019 Summer Cybersecurity Newsletter, OCR offers tips on overcoming the challenges associated with protecting patient data from attacks from within and explains how risk can be managed to comply with HIPAA Rules.

In order to protect patient data, healthcare providers must know all locations whether patient information is stored and how that information flows throughout the organization. Without such knowledge it is impossible to conduct a thorough and accurate risk analysis to determine all risks to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of patient data and reduce those risks to a reasonable an appropriate level.

Physical, technical and administrative access controls must be implemented to protect patient data against unauthorized access from within. Role-based access controls can help to reduce risk by preventing employees from accessing resources they are not authorized to use. Those controls should limit access to the minimum necessary information required to perform that individuals work duties.

OCR also reminds covered entities that they should control what individuals are able to do with patient data. If view only access is required, users should not be able to modify, delete, or download data. Controls should be implemented to prevent access from certain devices such as smartphones and the copying of data to portable storage devices such as zip drives.

The complex nature of healthcare IT systems makes it hard to achieve total visibility into the entire network and see every device in use. However, without full visibility, it is difficult to identify unauthorized data access quickly. OCR reminds covered entities that they must overcome the challenges and gain visibility into what users are doing on the network. Security teams must regularly check system, event, application, and audit logs in order to quickly detect suspicious activity and unusual patterns of data access. It may not be possible to prevent insider breaches, but when they occur, they must be identified and rectified promptly. There have been many cases of insiders accessing patient records without authorization for several years before the breach is detected.

Safeguards can be implemented, and policies and procedures developed to reduce risk, but those measures may not remain effective forever. Security is a dynamic process. Safeguards, policies and procedures need to be regularly assessed to ensure they continue to be effective. Access rights should be monitored and changed as appropriate when employees change role or transfer to a different department, and physical and electronic access to data must be terminated quickly when employees leave the organization.

Preventing and detecting attacks by malicious insiders is certainly a challenge, but by recognizing the risks and implementing appropriate safeguards, the risk of a breach can be managed and reduced to an acceptable level.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.