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What Level of SSL or TLS is Required for HIPAA Compliance?

Saturday, June 2nd, 2018

SSL and TLS are not actually monolithic encryption entities that you either use or do not use to connect securely to email servers, web sites, and other systems.  SSL and TLS are evolving protocols which have many nuances to how they may be configured.  The “version” of the protocol you are using and the ciphers used directly impact the level of security achievable through your connections.

Some people use the terms SSL and TLS interchangeably, but TLS (version 1.0 and beyond) is actually the successor of SSL (version 3.0). … see SSL versus TLS – what is the difference?  In 2014 we saw that SSL v3 was very weak and should not be used going forward by anyone (see the POODLE attacks, for example); TLS v1.0 or higher must be used.

Among the many configuration nuances of TLS, protocol versions supported (e.g., 1.0, 1.1, or 1.2) anf which “ciphers” are permitted have the greatest impact on security.  A “cipher” specifies encryption algorithm to be used,  the secure hashing (message fingerprinting / authentication) algorithm to be used, and other related things such as how encryption keys are negotiated.   Some ciphers that have long been used, such as RC4, have become weak over time and should never be used in secure environments.  Other ciphers provide protection against people who record a secure conversation from being able to decrypt it in the future if somehow the server’s private keys are compromised (perfect forward secrecy).

What level of TLS is required by HIPAA?

Given the many choices of ciphers and TLS protocol versions, people are often at a loss as to what is specifically needed for HIPAA compliance for an appropriate and compliant level TLS security.  Simply “turning on TLS” without also configuring it appropriately is likely to leave your transmission encryption non-complaint.  

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