HIPAA Encryption Requirements: The Key to Protecting Patient Privacy

Anwita

Anwita

Jan 27, 2024

HIPAA encryption

In the digital age, we are constantly juggling data privacy concerns. Emergence of new technologies and regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), means healthcare organizations must be vigilant in protecting patient information from unauthorized access or use. Encryption is a powerful tool that protects patient data at rest and in transit. 

This article explores how HIPAA encryption keeps patients’ information safe while allowing them to benefit from our modern and digitized care system. You will learn why encryption is necessary under HIPAA rules, types of encryption, and how you can ensure compliance with HIPAA’s requirements. So let’s dive into the world of HIPAA encryption!

What are HIPAA encryption requirements?

As per subpart 164.132 of title 45 in HIPAA, covered entities and business associates must implement a mechanism to encrypt or decrypt protected health information wherever applicable or appropriate. 

The HIPAA encryption requirements can confuse healthcare organizations as they don’t specify protocols, technologies, or standards for implementation. This leaves to navigate the vast array of options available and decide what best suits their needs. 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends that organizations secure Protected Health Information (PHI) using Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), OpenPGP, and S/MIME for data at rest and transition.

AES, a secure cryptographic algorithm with a minimum key size of 128 bits, provides adequate protection for PHI data. As per NIST, healthcare organizations should have procedures to manage encryption keys for secure storage and management.

Does HIPAA require encryption?

HIPAA encryption is an addressable security measure, not a required one. This means that while organizations must consider using encryption to protect patient data, they are only obligated to implement it if doing so would be reasonable and manageable. An accurate way to determine if it’s needed is to conduct a risk assessment. It is recommended if you determine that encryption is the appropriate control to address the gaps. 

Organizations may choose measures such as administrative safeguards and physical security controls instead of encryption. However, as HIPAA requires healthcare providers to protect PHI from unauthorized access or use, it’s important that alternative measures provide an adequate level of protection. 

Furthermore, all non-encryption measures must be regularly monitored and tested for vulnerabilities to ensure ongoing compliance with HIPAA’s requirements on encrypted data security.

HIPAA encryption requirements list

HIPAA recommends appropriately encrypting data using a robust encryption algorithm, whether at rest or in transition. However, before we start with the requirements, let’s take a quick look at what data at rest and transition means.

What is data at rest and transition?

Data at rest and in transition describes data that is either stored or moving between systems. 

Data ‘at rest’ refers to information not actively being accessed, such as files on a hard drive or emails stored in an inbox. 

Transitioning data is any form of digital information currently being transferred from one destination to another. This could be anything from a file uploaded to a cloud storage service to an email sent over the internet. 

HIPAA requirements for data at rest

Healthcare organizations should implement strong encryption techniques to secure data at rest. PHI must be encrypted with an Advanced Encryption Standard of 128-bits or higher, a secure cryptographic algorithm that provides adequate levels of protection.

Encryption helps protect PHI from unauthorized access or use by transforming it into a form that can only be decrypted using an appropriate key.

HIPAA regulations require healthcare organizations to encrypt any Protected Health Information (PHI) stored at rest and dictate that all encryption protocols follow the standards outlined in NIST Special Publication 800-111. It provides guidelines for securing sensitive data stored on end-user devices like laptops and servers. 

Full Disk Encryption

Full Disk Encryption (FDE) is a security measure used to protect data stored on computers and other digital devices. It uses encryption algorithms such as Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to encrypt an entire storage device, including the operating system, applications, and all user data. 

By doing this, sensitive information stored on the drive remains secure, even if it’s stolen or compromised in some way. FDE works by creating an encrypted layer between the hard drive and the operating system that can only be unlocked with a valid key. Without entering a correct password or valid key, any user or hacker attempting to access the data will not be able to read it; instead, they will see garbled data that is completely unreadable. 

FDE also provides tamper-proof protection against malicious actors who may try to alter or delete information on the disk. This makes it an essential security solution for organizations handling sensitive data, such as healthcare providers, financial institutions, and government agencies.

Guide to HIPAA-compliant data storage

Virtual Disk Encryption

Virtual Disk Encryption (VDE) is an advanced form of encryption that secures data stored on virtual machines and disk images used in cloud computing systems. Unlike Full Disk Encryption (FDE), which encrypts the entire storage device and its contents, VDE only encrypts the virtual disk itself. This secures multiple operating systems and applications stored on a shared hardware platform. 

VDE enables users to assign a unique encryption key to access files and data stored on a virtual machine’s disk. It scrambles data into unreadable code until it is unlocked with the correct key or password. If an attacker gained access to the virtual machine via malicious means, they would be unable to decrypt the data without the correct key or password. 

Additionally, it also protects users against unauthorized access and use of sensitive data.

File/Folder encryption

File/folder encryption is a security measure used to protect data stored on computers and other digital devices. It utilizes encryption algorithms such as Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to encrypt individual files or folders instead of an entire storage device. 

By doing this, sensitive information stored in the encrypted Folder or file remains secure even if it’s stolen or compromised in some way. File/Folder encryption creates an encrypted layer between the file and its contents that can only be unlocked with a valid key. Without entering a correct password or valid key, any user attempting to access the data will not be able to read it; instead, they will see garbled data that is completely unreadable. 

HIPAA requirements for data in transit

HIPAA sets strict requirements to secure PHI. In particular, HIPAA requires organizations to encrypt any PHI that is transmitted over a network. 

To meet these requirements, organizations must use encryption protocols that are in line with the standards set forth by NIST Publication 800-52, “Guidelines for the Selection and Use of Transport Layer Security (TLS) Implementations”, and SP 800-77, “Guide to IPsec VPNs”.

What is NIST Publication 800-52?

NIST Special Publication 800-52, “Guidelines for the Selection and Use of Transport Layer Security (TLS) Implementations”, is a document released by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that outlines various encryption technologies available and provides detailed guidelines on how organizations should use them to transmit data over a network securely. 

The publication specifies which protocols should be used when transmitting Protected Health Information (PHI) in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It also outlines specific key management rules and testing and monitoring procedures that must be implemented to protect PHI during transmission.

What is NIST Publication 800-77?

The NIST Publication 800-77, “Guide to IPsec VPNs,” offers instructions on how to use IPsec Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology safely. The publication discusses aspects like the advantages and drawbacks of IPsec VPNs, their design and implementation, and the selection of security protocols for IPsec VPNs. 

NIST Publication 800-77 aims to assist organizations in appropriately using IPsec VPNs to protect their data communications across open networks. It also discusses best practices for managing keys to encrypt transmitted data and strategies for responding to security incidents involving the VPN. 

By following NIST’s recommendations outlined in this publication, organizations can ensure their sensitive information remains safe during transit over public networks.

Here’s a list of all HIPAA requirements.

Why is HIPAA encryption important to protect EPHI?

HIPAA encryption protects Protected Health Information (PHI) from unauthorized access and disclosure. Encryption makes it much harder for attackers to view or steal PHI, as the data is scrambled into unreadable characters. It also ensures that any PHI transmitted over a network remains secure during transit by preventing eavesdropping or tampering with the data. 

HIPAA encryption is essential for protecting Protected Health Information (PHI) from unauthorized access and disclosure. By adhering to the guidelines discussed above, healthcare organizations can ensure their patient data remains secure while meeting HIPAA’s stringent requirements. 

Utilizing these technologies will help keep PHI safe during transmission over a network and protect patients’ privacy in the digital age. Implementing proper critical management rules and procedures and regularly testing networks for vulnerabilities are critical components of any successful encryption strategy. 

Athens Orthopedic Clinic is a real-life example of why you should be encrypting all sensitive information. The clinic paid 1.5M to OCR (Office for Civil Rights) due to multiple HIPAA violations. The breach happened when a hacking group, The Dark Overlord, was able to get access to the clinic’s database. As the information was not properly encrypted, the group could access the information of more than 208,557 individuals.

Conclusion

Implementing appropriate key management rules and procedures and regularly testing networks for vulnerabilities are critical components of any successful encryption strategy. 

Compliance tools such as Sprinto can be very useful and efficient in ensuring that you are compliant with all applicable laws and regulations related to HIPAA encryption. With these strategies in place, healthcare organizations have the power to protect sensitive patient information from unauthorized access or disclosure while ensuring compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. Want to learn more? Speak to our experts today.

FAQs

What is HIPAA Encryption?

HIPAA encryption is critical for protecting Protected Health Information (PHI) from unauthorized access and disclosure. It involves using various encryption technologies, such as TLS version 1.2 or higher and IPsec VPNs, to ensure adequate protection of PHI during transmission over a network.

Does HIPAA require encryption of all electronic PHI or only certain data types?

HIPAA requires that all Protected Health Information (PHI) transmitted electronically must be encrypted to protect it from unauthorized access or disclosure. This includes data stored on computers, networks, and other digital media such as emails, text messages, and cloud storage services.

Does HIPAA require 256-bit encryption?

HIPAA specifies that all electronic PHI must be encrypted to protect it from unauthorized access or disclosure. In general, stronger forms of encryption such as AES 128, 192, or 256-bit are recommended when dealing with highly sensitive information or data sent over untrusted networks, as this provides an extra layer of security. 

Does HIPAA require encryption?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires that all Protected Health Information (PHI) transmitted electronically must be encrypted using strong encryption algorithms to protect it from unauthorized access or disclosure. Organizations should also consider using additional security measures such as tokenization if they need even greater protection for their PHI.

What devices must be encrypted for HIPAA?

According to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), all Protected Health Information (PHI) transmitted electronically must be encrypted to protect it from unauthorized access or disclosure. This includes data stored on computers, networks, and other types of digital media such as emails, text messages, and cloud storage services.

Anwita

Anwita

Anwita is a cybersecurity enthusiast and veteran blogger all rolled into one. Her love for everything cybersecurity started her journey into the world compliance. With multiple certifications on cybersecurity under her belt, she aims to simplify complex security related topics for all audiences. She loves to read nonfiction, listen to progressive rock, and watches sitcoms on the weekends.

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