Managing a Security Breach

The best time to manage a security breach is right now before one happens. Unfortunately, as hackers employ increasingly savvy methods of stealing information, network data breaches are happening more and more frequently to businesses of all types, putting some pretty high-profile companies and in the news. However, according to a Ponemon Institute and Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, the healthcare industry experiences more data breaches than any other business sector. The Department of Health and Human Services is required to maintain a list of healthcare companies that have had data breaches. In the past two years, 16,435,340 patient records have been illegally accessed. And only it’s getting worse. April saw 46 reported healthcare data breaches, a 48% increase over March and 67% higher than the average over the past six years.

According to the Infosec Institute, the average cost of a data breach experienced by a non-healthcare related business is $158 per stolen record. Healthcare organizations, on the other hand, are hit with an average cost of $355. According to the Infosec Institute, credit card information and Personally Identifiable Information (PII) sell for a couple of bucks on the black market, but Personal Health Information (PHI) can sell for as much as $363. The reason it’s so valuable in comparison is because, while credit cards and other financial sources can be shut down, PHI is largely unchangeable. Cybercriminals use it to target victims with frauds and scams. Other hackers use PHI to illegally get prescriptions for their own use or to sell on the black market.

The Federal HIPAA Security Rule mandates that all healthcare providers must safeguard electronic health records (EHR) by using the appropriate physical and electronic precautions to help ensure the safety of patient health information. Any breach of 500 records or more must be reported, regardless of breach methodology: hacking, accidental disclosure by an employee, lost or stolen laptops or mobile devices, or other unauthorized access.

We’ve Been Hacked! Now What?

Once the horse is already out of the barn, you’re forced into a reactive position. Being proactive is always the better route to take. However, if your systems have been breached, here are some immediate steps to take to help manage the situation and address any backlash or negative press.

The first step is to shut down systems to prevent further damage. You’ll also want to identify exactly where and how the breach happened. A lot of breaches are traced back to email attachments.

Hackers leave a trail of time stamps and code. Your IT department will be able to identify these and assess the entire system. Note: If you use SSL Certificates (which you absolutely should be) you must report the breach to your Certificate Authority.

Managing Public Fallout

The biggest hurdle in getting out in front of a data breach that has already occurred is communication and notification. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have now enacted laws that require both private and government entities to notify individuals when a security breach has occurred. 

As soon as you’ve discovered that your systems have been hacked into, it’s important that you control the message. Don’t let someone else interpret the story, and certainly don’t EVER try to cover up anything. Always be as transparent as the situation allows. A cover-up will always come back to bite you, and it will make your organization appear untrustworthy. It’s as important to inform your internal teams (IT department, any staff with patient contact, PR and marketing department for crisis communications) as it is to broadcast the message externally (email to patients, email to organization stakeholders, an official press release). Depending on the size of your organization or the scope of the breach, you may also want to arrange a press conference with local and/or national media. In this case, it’s best not to attempt to go it alone; let the pros with PR and media relations expertise take the reins.

Basic rules of engagement include:

  1. Accept responsibility if an internal situation or point of failure was the cause of the breach.
  2. Give details and spell out exactly how the breach happened.
  3. Explain the measures that you plan to take to help ensure a similar breach doesn’t happen in the future.
  4. Internally, figure out what you’re going to offer the affected patients (e.g., a year’s subscription to a credit monitoring service).

How to Help Prevent a Breach

Taking a few simple steps can help to keep the bad guys out of your organization. Password security is the easiest one to take. All passwords should be at least 12 characters long and use letters (upper and lowercase), numbers and special characters. IT experts at Georgia Institute of Technology found that a hacker can crack an 8-character password in less than two hours. A 12-character password, on the other hand, would take roughly 17,000 years to crack. It’s also important to prohibit the use of most commonly used passwords such as 123456 or “password.”

Make sure to have Cyber Liability Insurance Coverage (CLIC). While a CLIC policy won’t protect you from cybercrime, it can protect you from financial or business interruption loss due to a cyber attack. CLIC typically covers the following:

  • The investigation:It’s important to conduct a thorough forensics investigation to discover exactly what happened, how you can repair the damage, and how you can prevent a future reoccurrence. Investigations typically involve not only your internal IT department, but also the services of a third-party security firm, and coordination with local law enforcement and even the FBI if necessary.
  • Business losses:A CLIC policy will often include many of the same items that are covered by your organization’s errors and omissions policy, in addition to financial losses because of network downtime, overall business interruption, data recovery and costs resulting from crisis management consulting.
  • Notification services:This coverage includes sending the mandatory data breach notifications to patients and other affected parties, which, as indicated above, are mandated by law in all U.S. states and territories, as well as paying for credit monitoring for people whose information was or might have been breached.
  • Lawsuits and extortion:This coverage includes any legal expenses, settlements and regulatory fines that you may incur as a result of the breach. It might also include reimbursement for the costs of cyber extortion, such as money lost as a result of being hit with ransomware.

Taking these steps will help protect you from an attack as well as help you mitigate the potentially negative impact of an IT security accident. When implemented correctly they will also reflect your organization in a more positive light, showing that you’re reliable, responsible and transparent.


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