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Philadelphia Department of Public Health Data Breach Exposed Data of Hepatitis Patients

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) has discovered sensitive information of patients with hepatitis B and hepatitis C has been exposed over the internet and could be accessed by anyone without the need for authentication. The breach came to light on Friday October 12, 2019 following notification from a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The issue was corrected within minutes of the hospital being notified of the breach. An investigation has now been launched to determine the nature, cause, and extent of the breach.

New cases of hepatitis B and hepatitis C must be reported to PDPH by medical providers to enable tracking and monitoring of the disease. Both diseases can be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person. New cases are often the result of sharing of needles by intravenous drug users. New cases of both forms of hepatitis are monitored as part of the PDPH opioids initiative.

The data supplied by healthcare providers had been uploaded to a website tool that allows aggregated data to be visualized through charts using Tableau software. Tableau dashboards are created to allow data to be aggregated and easily displayed in an understandable format. The creators of Tableau dashboards must ensure security controls are implemented to prevent backend data from being accessed. If those controls are not applied, raw data can be viewed and downloaded.

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According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the breach could have affected tens of thousands of patients. The newspaper found data on around 23,000 patients who had contracted hepatitis C.

The exposed data included a patient’s name, along with their gender, address, test results, and in some cases, Social Security number. The data covered new cases of Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C reported to PDPH between 2013 and 2018. It is currently unclear for how long the data was accessible via the PDPH website, how many patients have been affected, and how many unauthorized individuals accessed the information during the time it was exposed.

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.