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Health Net healthcare data breach affects1.5 million

Robert Westervelt, News Director

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Health Net, Inc. announced Wednesday that it was investigating a healthcare data security breach that resulted in the loss of seven years patient data affecting 1.5 million customers.

The Woodland Hills, Calif.-based managed healthcare provider said the lost files, a mixture of medical data, Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information, were contained on a portable external hard drive, which was lost six months ago. The company said the healthcare data was not encrypted, but was formatted as images and requires a software application to be viewed.

The company reported the breach Wednesday to State Attorneys Generals offices in Arizona, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Health Net said it was beginning the data security breach notification process of sending out letters to its customers notifying them of the breach. The company said it expects to send notification letters the week of Nov. 30.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he was investigating the matter and why it took the Health Net six months to report the healthcare breach. The hard drive contained data on 446,000 Connecticut patients.

"My investigation will seek to establish what happened and why the company kept its customers and the state in the dark for so long," Blumenthal said in a statement. "The company's failure to safeguard such sensitive information and inform consumers of its loss -- leaving them naked to identity theft -- may have violated state and federal laws." 

Data encryption:

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Blumenthal said the data also contained financial data, including bank account numbers. He is seeking coverage for comprehensive, long-term identity theft protection for those customers affected by the breach.

Health Net provides medical coverage for approximately 6.6 million people and its subsidiaries operate in all 50 states. In a statement, the company said the breach took place in its Connecticut office. So far there have not been any reports of fraud tied to the missing data, the company said.

"Health Net will provide credit monitoring for over two years - free of charge - to all impacted members who elect this service, and will provide assistance to any member who has experienced any suspicious activity, identity theft or health care fraud between May 2009 and their date of enrollment with our identity protection service," the company said.

It is the second time in a month that a healthcare provider lost customer data. Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Connecticut reported a stolen laptop was to blame for a breach compromising the personal information of 850,000 doctors, therapists and other healthcare professionals. 

Security experts have long been advocating that enterprises deploy encryption on laptops and other devices that contain sensitive data. Still, all the technology in the world won't end employee mistakes and carelessness, said Mike Rothman an analyst with Security Incite.

"You can do full disk encryption and all sorts of things to protect the device, but you are still fairly constrained by user sophistication," Rothman said. "You have to start asking questions from a process standpoint relative to why this stuff was on an external drive in the first place."

In reality you could turn off all USB ports on your devices, but that could hinder employee productivity, Rothman said. Security always gets back to making sure you have the right processes and policies in place and the right training and awareness so that employees understand what those policies are and then ways to audit those processes, he said.


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