Townsend Security Data Privacy Blog

HIPAA/HITECH Act – Encryption and Key Management Requirements

Posted by Patrick Townsend on Jul 28, 2011 8:41:00 AM

HIPAAMany of you have asked me about encryption and key management requirements for HIPAA and HITECH Act. I can understand why there is a fair amount of confusion about this. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not issued the final rules, but they have indicated that the current Interim Final Rules are unlikely to change very much. The final rules are due to be published later this year, and may be updated on an annual basis.

The current IFRs indicate that encryption is an accepted method of protecting patient health information. However, there is no mandate for encryption, and medical providers (Covered Entities, in HHS regulatory speak) can use other methods to protect data. However, the guidance about breach notification is very explicit on the question of encryption. A medical provider can only avoid breach notification if the data is encrypted. In the event of a data loss where the data is not encrypted, the medical provider must report the breach to HHS and to the patients affected by the loss. The breach event is published on a public web site maintained by HHS. There may be penalties for the loss of unprotected information, and HHS has already started levying fines on medical providers. Here is what HHS says about encryption and breach notification:

“Protected health information (PHI) is rendered unusable, unreadable, or indecipherable to unauthorized individuals if one or more of the following applies:

1. Electronic PHI has been encrypted as specified in the HIPAA Security Rule by “the use of an algorithmic process to transform data into a form in which there is a low probability of assigning meaning without use of a confidential process or key” (45 CFR 164.304 definition of encryption) and such confidential process or key that might enable decryption has not been breached.  To avoid a breach of the confidential process or key, these decryption tools should be stored on a device or at a location separate from the data they are used to encrypt or decrypt.  The encryption processes identified below have been tested by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and judged to meet this standard.“

This is how proper key management is discussed in the HHS documentation. Note that it explicitly states that encryption keys must NOT be stored on the same device as the protected data. This is very similar to the PCI DSS requirement. The HHS documentation makes reference to NIST publications, and those publications recommend the use of FIPS 140-2 key management solutions.

It is important to note that tokenization is not mentioned by the HHS guidelines at all. Tokenization vendors will probably argue that tokenized data is not patient information, so can be used to avoid breach notification. But that is a vendor claim, and is not addressed by HHS. It should be noted that like PCI DSS, the tokenization solution must also meet the HHS guidelines for encryption and key management.

The bottom line?

The only way to avoid a breach notification is through the use of industry standard encryption such as AES, and appropriate encryption key management technologies. Encryption keys must not be stored on the same device (server) as the protected data. NIST best practices recommend that key management systems should be FIPS 140-2 certified. Our Alliance Key Manager solution meets these guidelines and will help you get to the land of HIPAA and HITECH Act Nirvana.

For more information, download our white paper titled "Achieve Safe-Harbor Status from HITECH Act Breach Notification with NIST-Certified Data Encryption."


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Topics: Encryption, HITECH, Encryption Key Management, HIPAA