New HIPAA guidance addresses ransomware

The U.S. Department of Human Services has released new guidance for health care organizations that focuses on the growing threat of ransomware, stresses the need for better education and regular backups, and confirms that a ransomware attack against plain-text health information is, in fact, a breach that must be disclosed.

The guidance recommends that organizations identify the risks facing their patient information, create a plan to address those links, set up procedures to protect systems from malware, train users to spot malware, limit access to sensitive information to just the people who need it most, and have a disaster recovery plan that includes frequent data backups.

"The new guidance, to a great extent reiterates what has already been in place, but is a bit more specific," said Dana Simberkoff, Chief Compliance and Risk Officer at Jersey City, NJ-based AvePoint Inc. "The emphasis is on education, which is a good component of a good data protection program."

Ransomware typically gets onto a system through malicious email attachments or links to malicious websites, both of which can be addressed to some degree with employee education.

"The second mistake organizations make is granting too much access to people who don't need access to that information," she said. "Organizations should focus on providing the least access possible for employees to do their jobs."

Understaffed IT departments, however, often err on the side of too much access, she said.

"By giving people more access than they need, they avoid having those folks come back every time they need something," she said.

However, limiting the access rights of individual users means that if those users get effective, there's less data that the malware can get to.

The new guidance is a summary of industry best practices, which organizations should already have been doing, she said.

"The only thing that's surprising about the guidance s that it's a little bit late," she said.

In addition to providing recommendations for organizations to help them defend against ransomware, the new guidance also clarifies that a ransomware attack does, in fact, count as a breach because "unauthorized individuals have taken possession or control of the information."

"When electronic protected health information is encrypted as the result of a ransomware attack,

a breach has occurred," the HHS guidance said.

One exception, however, is if the data had already been encrypted by the organization itself, and the hackers who got access to it would not have been able to do anything with it. But it depends on the type of encryption.

For example, if a cybercriminal gets access to a laptop with full disk encryption, and the laptop is powered down, the that would be unreadable to the attacker.

That's not the case if the laptop was powered up, however, and the user was logged in.

"If the ransomware accesses the file containing the PHI, the file containing the PHI will be transparently decrypted by the full disk encryption solution and access permitted with the same access levels granted to the user," the guidance said.

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