HHS explains intersection of cloud and HIPAA

Shutterstock image (by Maksim Kabakou): cloud computing concept, security.

The Department of Health and Human Services is dealing with questions about how to reconcile complex health data protection regulations from the 1990s with the rapidly evolving world of cloud IT.

HHS' Office for Civil Rights, which is responsible for overseeing protection of sensitive data under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, issued guidance on Oct. 6 explaining how to guard electronic health information protected under HIPAA rules in today's diffuse cloud networking environment.

The law seeks to protect health insurance coverage for workers when they change or lose jobs, and it protects the security and confidentiality of their health care information.

Applying the latter protections, such as ensuring that only people authorized to handle personal information are able to do so, is much harder in a cloud environment, where the rules about what must be protected and from whom are not always distinct.

HHS officials said the new guidance focuses on cloud service providers that offer online access to shared computing resources with varying levels of functionality depending on the users' requirements -- ranging from data storage to complete software solutions such as electronic medical record systems, app development and software development.

The guidance notes that cloud vendors that store protected data are not exempt from HIPAA obligations, even if they don't have access to encryption keys to unlock the data. Encryption does not guarantee that the information is not corrupted by malware and does not provide for always-on availability during emergency or disaster situations, the guidance states.

CSPs are also subject to breach notification rules that apply to business associates of health care providers in the event information is stolen or compromised.

The guidance also assures health care providers that they may access cloud-based health information via mobile devices "as long as appropriate physical, administrative and technical safeguards are in place to protect the confidentiality, integrity and availability" of the information.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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