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March 18, 2024
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 min read

HIPAA Vulnerability Scan and How to Identify HIPAA identifiers and Protect Them?

A HIPAA vulnerability scan is a systematic, technical examination aimed at identifying and assessing security weaknesses within an organization's electronic systems and networks that manage electronic protected health information (ePHI).

HIPAA Vulnerability Scan and How to Identify HIPAA identifiers and Protect Them?
Calendar Icon White
March 18, 2024
Clock Icon
 min read

HIPAA Vulnerability Scan and How to Identify HIPAA identifiers and Protect Them?

A HIPAA vulnerability scan is a systematic, technical examination aimed at identifying and assessing security weaknesses within an organization's electronic systems and networks that manage electronic protected health information (ePHI).


The HIPAA Security Rule mandates that entities covered by the regulation must put in place protective measures to safeguard the confidentiality, integrity, and security of electronic protected health information (ePHI). This type of information refers to any health-related data that is processed, stored, transmitted, or received electronically. As part of this directive, covered entities are required to conduct a comprehensive security risk analysis, also referred to as a security risk assessment. 

This is defined by the Security Rule as a detailed and accurate evaluation of the potential risks and weaknesses that could affect the confidentiality, integrity, and security of ePHI managed by the covered entity or its business associates. 

To identify existing vulnerabilities in software applications, network systems, and security barriers, entities may carry out vulnerability scans. These scans are critical for pinpointing security flaws in systems that could be exploited by unauthorized individuals, thereby compromising the protection of ePHI. 

This process is a vital component of an entity's overall health information security strategy, ensuring that appropriate and effective security measures are in place to mitigate identified risks and vulnerabilities, thereby enhancing the protection of sensitive health information in the digital realm.

What is HIPAA Vulnerability Scan ?

HIPAA Vulnerabilities refer to security flaws that, when exploited or activated by a threat, present a danger of unauthorized access to or exposure of electronic protected health information (ePHI)

A HIPAA vulnerability scan is a systematic, technical examination aimed at identifying and assessing security weaknesses within an organization's electronic systems and networks that manage electronic protected health information (ePHI). This process involves the use of automated tools and manual techniques to scan applications, networks, and firewalls for known vulnerabilities, such as unpatched software, insecure system configurations, and other security flaws that could be exploited by cyber attackers. 

The primary goal of a HIPAA vulnerability scan is to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI by detecting and mitigating potential security threats in compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule's requirements for safeguarding health information

How HIPAA Security Rules Define a HIPAA Security Incidents?

The HIPAA Security Rule plays a crucial role in this effort by setting standards for protecting electronic protected health information (ePHI). A key aspect of these standards is the definition and handling of HIPAA security incidents. Let's delve into what constitutes a HIPAA security incident and explore some examples to better understand how these incidents can occur and the potential risks they pose.

What is a HIPAA Security Incident?

A HIPAA security incident is defined as an attempted or successful unauthorized access, use, disclosure, modification, or destruction of information or interference with system operations in an information system that manages or stores ePHI. This definition underscores the broad spectrum of actions and outcomes that can constitute a security incident under the HIPAA Security Rule. The essence of a security incident lies in its potential to compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of ePHI, thereby posing a risk to patient privacy and data security.

Examples of HIPAA Security Incidents

To illustrate the concept of HIPAA security incidents, let's consider some scenarios that healthcare organizations might encounter:

  • Phishing Attacks: An employee receives an email that appears to be from a trusted source, asking them to click on a link or provide their login credentials. If the employee complies, attackers could gain unauthorized access to the system that contains ePHI.
  • Lost or Stolen Devices: A laptop, smartphone, or external hard drive containing ePHI is lost or stolen. If the device is not adequately encrypted, this could lead to unauthorized access to sensitive health information.
  • Ransomware Attacks: Cybercriminals use malware to encrypt an organization's data, including ePHI, and demand payment for the decryption key. This not only restricts access to critical health information but also raises concerns about the unauthorized disclosure of patient data.
  • Unauthorized Access by Employees: An employee accesses patient information without a legitimate need to know, whether out of curiosity, malicious intent, or by mistake. This constitutes a security incident because it is an unauthorized use of ePHI.
  • Improper Disposal of Information: ePHI is not properly disposed of, for instance, hard drives or documents containing health information are thrown away without being shredded or wiped. This could lead to unauthorized individuals gaining access to patient information.

HIPAA Security Rules

Technical safeguards play a critical role in the HIPAA Security Rule, focusing on the technology and the policy and procedures for its use that protect electronic protected health information (ePHI) and control access to it. 

These safeguards are designed to mitigate risks and ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of ePHI that is transmitted, received, or stored electronically. Let's delve into the main components of the technical safeguards as outlined by the HIPAA Security Rule.

1. Access Control (§ 164.312(a))

Unique User Identification: Every individual accessing ePHI must have a distinct user ID, ensuring activities can be accurately tracked to the correct user.

Emergency Access Procedure: Set up methods to ensure ePHI can be quickly and securely accessed during an emergency.

Automatic Session Termination: Create electronic mechanisms that automatically log off users after a set period of inactivity to prevent unauthorized access.

Encryption and Decryption (Addressable): Where appropriate, use technology to encrypt ePHI when stored or transmitted, and decrypt it when needed by authorized personnel. This is an adaptable measure, depending on the entity's specific needs and capabilities.

2. Audit Controls (§ 164.312(b))

Activity Records and Analysis: Deploy tools and processes to log and examine activities in systems handling ePHI, enabling the detection of unauthorized access or alterations.

3. Integrity (§ 164.312(c))

ePHI Authentication: Implement methods to verify that ePHI has not been altered or destroyed in an unauthorized manner. This helps maintain the data's accuracy and reliability.

4. Person or Entity Authentication (§ 164.312(d))

Verify Person or Entity: Establish verification processes to confirm that a person or entity seeking access to ePHI is indeed who they claim to be, preventing unauthorized access.

5. Transmission Security (§ 164.312(e))

Guarding Against Unauthorized Access: Use technical measures to protect ePHI while it's being transmitted over electronic networks, ensuring it remains inaccessible to unauthorized individuals.

Integrity and Encryption of Transmitted ePHI (Addressable): Implement methods to detect unauthorized modifications of ePHI during transmission and encrypt ePHI where considered necessary. This is another flexible measure that can be adapted based on the entity's judgment and resources.

What are the Data Elements Protected by HIPAA?

Here is the list of 18 identifiers that HIPAA considers could be used to identify an individual:

  1. Names
  2. All geographic subdivisions smaller than a state, including street address, city, county, precinct, ZIP Code, and their equivalent geocodes, except for the initial three digits of a ZIP Code if, according to the current publicly available data from the Bureau of the Census: The geographic unit formed by combining all ZIP Codes with the same three initial digits contains more than 20,000 people; and The initial three digits of a ZIP Code for all such geographic units containing 20,000 or fewer people is changed to 000.
  1. All elements of dates (except year) for dates directly related to an individual, including birth date, admission date, discharge date, date of death; and all ages over 89 and all elements of dates (including year) indicative of such age, except that such ages and elements may be aggregated into a single category of age 90 or older.
  2. Telephone numbers
  3. Fax numbers
  4. Electronic mail addresses
  5. Social security numbers
  6. Medical record numbers
  7. Health plan beneficiary numbers
  8. Account numbers
  9. Certificate/license numbers
  10. Vehicle identifiers and serial numbers, including license plate numbers
  11. Device identifiers and serial numbers
  12. Web Universal Resource Locators (URLs)
  13. Internet Protocol (IP) address numbers
  14. Biometric identifiers, including finger and voiceprints
  15. Full face photographic images and any comparable images
  16. Any other unique identifying number, characteristic, or code

How does a HIPAA vulnerability Scan help Sensitive Data Protection?

Vulnerability scanning is a cornerstone of HIPAA compliance efforts, enabling healthcare organizations to discover, classify, and protect sensitive patient data against cyber threats.

Sensitive Data Scanning in SaaS ,Cloud ,Web and Endpoints for HIPAA Compliance 

Sensitive Data Scanning

Sensitive data scanning is a critical first step in identifying where ePHI resides within an organization'sSaaS ,Cloud and Endpoints. This process involves using automated tools to scan systems and networks for ePHI, ensuring that all locations where this information is stored, processed, or transmitted are known and documented.

By accurately pinpointing the presence of sensitive data, organizations can apply appropriate DLP policies to protect it. Regular scanning helps in uncovering new areas where ePHI might be stored, addressing potential vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

Sensitive data Classification:

Once ePHI has been identified through sensitive data scanning, the next step involves classifying this data based on its level of sensitivity and the potential impact of its disclosure. Classification schemes may range from public to highly confidential, with ePHI typically falling into the highest category of sensitivity due to its nature. 

Classifying data helps in determining the appropriate level of protection needed, guiding the implementation of security policies, procedures, and technical controls tailored to safeguard ePHI effectively. Data classification also aids in prioritizing efforts to address the most sensitive or at-risk data first, aligning with HIPAA's risk management requirements.

Sensitive Data Remediation: 

1. Sensitive Data Redaction and Securing methods: 

Conceal sensitive information within texts and documents, including API keys, passwords, social security numbers, national IDs, credit card numbers, names, and phone numbers.

2. Document/ File redaction and securing:

Executes redaction on a document stored in the vault. To obtain the document with redacted information, you must use the "Get Redacted Document" API.

Below is an example showcasing a W2 Tax Return before and after the redaction process: 

3. Text Redaction and Securing:

Conducts redaction on inline text. The method of text redaction varies based on the redact field mode; in modes where sensitive text is substituted with a link to the Strac document vault, registration with the Strac vault website and provision of a base Strac endpoint are required.For instance, given the input text: "Please onboard the user with SSN 123-45-6789 and type text," the outcome of the redaction would be:Image:

4. Audio Redaction:

Strac Redaction API now works with audio files, not just text and documents.Redacting audio is complex and used to require a lot of manual work. Old methods like adding beeps or silence take time and interrupt the listening. Our Redaction API changes that.It uses speech recognition and redaction algorithms to find and mute sensitive information in audio without disrupting the flow. You get a redacted audio file where the sensitive data is hidden, but the audio is still easy to listen to.

5. Anonymizing Sensitive data :

Remove or obscure sensitive information within texts and documents. This includes data such as API keys, passwords, social security numbers, national IDs, credit card numbers, names, and phone numbers.

Executes data anonymization on a Google Sheets document. This API enhances the privacy and security of your spreadsheets by substituting sensitive information, such as phone numbers, names, emails, and ZIP codes, with pseudonyms or unique identifiers. It offers seamless integration with Google Workspace via domain-wide delegation and can be set to operate periodically.

Automate HIPAA DLP with Sensitive Data Discovery and Classification 

Automated Redaction: Strac’s sophisticated algorithms swiftly pinpoint and obscure PHI, fortifying defenses against data breaches and preventing unauthorized access, maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of sensitive health information.

Effortless SaaS Integration: Strac's HIPAA DLP solutions integrate smoothly with leading enterprise SaaS applications, providing a seamless experience for secure PHI management without the need for extensive IT infrastructure modifications.

Endpoint Data Loss Prevention: Endpoint DLP integrates with both Mac ,Windows and Linux systems to monitor data movement in endpoints , email sensitive data monitoring and sensitive data detection, alongside enforcing access control and performing sensitive data redaction.

Tokenization for Enhanced Privacy: Implementing tokenization, Strac introduces an additional security measure, transforming PHI into anonymized tokens. This process renders the data inaccessible to unauthorized users while preserving its utility for analytical purposes, striking the perfect balance between security and operational efficiency.

Adaptable Security Settings: Understanding that each healthcare organization has unique needs, Strac DLP offers customizable security protocols. These tailored settings ensure optimal protection for PHI, aligning with the specific requirements and challenges of diverse healthcare environments. effortlessly align with HIPAA regulations, significantly reducing the administrative overhead and minimizing the risk of non-compliance.

Content Discovery and Classification: Strac's advanced system continuously monitors and classifies PHI, providing real-time alerts and automated responses to emerging threats. This proactive approach ensures immediate identification and management of potential risks, enhancing overall data security.

Founder, Strac. ex-Amazon Payments Infrastructure (Widget, API, Security) Builder for 11 years.

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