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Health care breach victims plummet

The number of people affected by health care data breaches drastically dropped from 2011 to 2012, according to an analysis of the latest report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Data breaches impacted 2.5 million people in 2012, a precipitous fall from 2011, when 11 million people were affected, noted Gartner Research Vice President Jack Santos in a blog post on Monday.

"Well I am happy to say that we are off the curve to have 50 percent of the population breached for health care data by 2025," he wrote.

Santos' analysis jibes with a report earlier this year from Redspin, which provides penetration testing, risk management and compliance services to a number of industries, including health care providers.

In its report released in February, Redspin noted that while the number of large breaches in 2012 increased 21.5 percent over 2011, the number of patient records affected by the breaches dropped 77 percent.

Santos cited three possible reasons for the plummeting numbers:

  • Rules and fines have provided the industry with a wake-up call, and it has cleaned up its security act.
  • The 2011 numbers were an anomaly.
  • The numbers are suspect and the reporting inaccurate.

In its report, Redspin maintains that tougher regulations and high-profile settlements contributed significantly to the year-to-year fall in affected clients.

The report said more hospitals have begun to conduct security risk assessments mandated by federal law and regulation, while the federal agency charged with protecting the privacy and security of medical records -- the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) -- began to impress on the industry that the regulators were serious about privacy and security through fines and monetary settlements.

[Also see: Law firms see big money in healthcare breach cases]

"During the same time period, OCR began to wield its enforcement authority, publicly announcing several high profile investigations that resulted in breach resolution agreements," the report said.

The risk of data breaches have increased as medical information over the last 18 to 24 months has migrated en masse from paper to electronic form, said Danny Creedon, managing director of Kroll Advisory Solutions' Cyber Investigations Practice.

"You're taking paper data that can be left in fax machines or inadvertently faxed to the wrong people and moving it to electronic format where it can be emailed to the wrong people," he said in an interview.

Although there was a large scale attack on Utah by East European hackers in which the records of 780,000 Medicaid and Children's Health Plan recipients were compromised, hacker activity accounted for only six percent of the reported data breaches at health care facilities from 2009 to 2012.

"I'm not sure the hacker community is primarily focused on health care records as much as they're focused on financial records -- credit card data, bank accounts," Creedon said. "That would be the primary target of opportunity for hackers."

"But health care records certainly do provide as target-rich environment for folks looking to use records for non-financial illicit purposes," he added.

However, Redspin said medical information will be moving up on the hit list of hackers.

"[Hacker] attacks are likely to increase in frequency over the next few years," Redspin said. "Personal health records are high value targets for cybercriminals as they can be exploited for identify theft, insurance fraud, stolen prescriptions, and dangerous hoaxes.

"We expect that the low incidence rate of hacking during the past few years was the calm before the storm," it added.

Read more about data privacy in CSOonline's Data Privacy section.


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