How should HIPAA covered entities respond to healthcare ransomware?

The Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Civil Rights ruled that ransomware attacks are HIPAA breaches…


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and released a new guidance about how healthcare organizations should handle ransomware attacks under the HIPAA regulations. What’s included in this guidance? How should organizations respond to healthcare ransomware to maintain compliance?

Ransomware poses an increasingly dangerous threat to enterprise security. In the first half of 2016, organizations experienced 4,000 ransomware attacks per day, a 300% increase from 2015. These attacks often target healthcare organizations responsible for electronic protected health information (ePHI), prompting the Department of Health and Human Services to release a guidance on the topic.

The guidance starts by describing the threat of healthcare ransomware: attackers encrypt the data belonging to an organization using a secret encryption key and then use that secret key as leverage to demand ransom from the organization. Unless the organization pays the ransom, it is unable to gain access to its own information. In the case of healthcare records, this can have disastrous consequences for patient safety.

Covered entities and their business associates that comply with HIPAA may find themselves well-situated to prevent healthcare ransomware infections, as well as other malware attacks. These organizations already follow practical security measures, including conducting risk assessments, putting strong security procedures in place, training staff and limiting access to ePHI on a need-to-know basis.

When a HIPAA-compliant organization suffers a ransomware infection, it is often better prepared to recover than other entities. For example, HIPAA requires that healthcare providers have a solid disaster recovery plan that includes backing up important health records. If an organization falls victim to a healthcare ransomware infection, these backups can provide an authoritative source of the original data without paying the ransom.

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