HIPAA extends healthcare providers' scope of accountability

Although HIPAA security guidelines do not yet carry the weight of law, healthcare organizations need to protect patient data -- regardless of where it's processed or stored.

"To demonstrate due diligence and protect themselves from litigation, healthcare organizations must require that any service provider having access to patient data be HIPAA compliant," said Allen Vance, director of offer development for managed security services for Internet Security Systems (ISS), a provider of security management solutions for the Internet.

"This means that the service provider must have in place well-defined and proven security processes and technology that will protect the confidentiality and integrity of data, as well as control the availability of that information; for example, controlling access, preventing the destruction or alternation of data, encrypting data traveling over networks and the Internet and auditing these procedures to make sure they are working correctly."

Vance recommends that if the healthcare organization's IT department doesn't employ a security expert, the services of a managed security provider or security specialist should be enlisted to make sure the HIPAA problem is being handled correctly. "A security specialist can conduct a security assessment," he said. "This can be performed on a one-time basis, repeated quarterly or annually or as infrastructure changes warrant."

In addition to interviews and walk-through

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inspections, security auditors employ a number of automated tools that can detect network security problems as well as recommend fixes. A vulnerability scan, for example, checks firewall configurations, password strength and operating system configuration, as well as looks for unknown or unauthorized devices attached to the network, remote control applications, and signs of intruder infiltration, including sniffer and back door programs. A report rates each vulnerability low, medium or high risk and suggests fixes.

"The audit should include both external and internal assessments," Vance said. "The external assessment looks at the network perimeter -- firewall, router, Web servers, etc. -- from the hacker's eye view via the Internet. The vulnerability scan is performed internally, behind the firewall. In addition, you may want to request a penetration test-with the service provider's permission. During a penetration test, security experts literally try to hack into the network and take information to prove they got there."

About the Author
Linda Christie is a contributing editor based out of Tulsa, Okla.

This was first published in October 2001

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