Securing access to protected health information is a crucial tenant of HIPAA compliance. Your employees may have access to sensitive information, so ensuring their accounts are secure is essential to protecting this data. While you can’t stop users from making poor choices, there are administrative actions you can take to help improve account security. We’ve created a list to help assess your security stance.
What are Access Controls?
First, let’s define what we mean by access controls. In the context of HIPAA compliance, access controls refer to the technical and physical safeguards required to maintain the integrity and confidentiality of protected health information. Physical access controls include protecting the physical security of PHI located on physical servers, files, and other hardware. This is easy to understand. File cabinets are locked, rooms require passkeys or access codes to enter, and there are often sign-in and out sheets for physical files or information.
Access controls are more complicated for digital storage. In today’s world, most electronic protected health information (ePHI) is digitally stored in EHRs, databases, or the cloud. This article discusses ways to improve account security to maintain the integrity and confidentiality of digitally stored ePHI.
Account Security Checklist
Below we’ve compiled some of our tips for improving account security. Note that HIPAA does not make specific technical recommendations for how to meet its requirements. There are many ways to meet HIPAA requirements that do not dictate the use of any specific technology. However, keep in mind that the goal is to secure the sensitive data entrusted to your organization, not just check off compliance requirements.
To track who is accessing protected health information, it’s essential that account logins are not shared among staff members. When users share login credentials, it is impossible to tell who accessed information when reviewing audit logs. This can create issues when dealing with a security incident. By clearly designating logins to individuals, it’s easy to determine who is accessing PHI and to detect unusual activity. Ensure your employees understand that sharing logins is not allowed and set policies to enforce this rule.
Many people understand the importance of having a secure password, but it’s still shocking how many people use insecure or easily guessed passwords. According to a report from LastPass, 95% of IT professionals said that passwords pose security risks to their organization. They reported that employees frequently mishandle passwords, sharing them too liberally and via insecure methods. A few steps you can take to improve password security include:
- Using unique passwords for each account
- Requiring the use of special characters, numbers, and capitalization
- Randomly generating passwords
- Using password managers to store account information securely
Administrators should create policies for passwords and enforce as many of these requirements as possible by default. Don’t rely on users making the right decisions.
If a user’s password is weak and gets compromised, multifactor authentication can help keep accounts secure. Multifactor authentication requires a second piece of information (usually a six-digit code) to complete the login process. The code is sent to or generated by a second device. Without access to this code, a hacker cannot log in to the account, even if they have the username and password.
We recommend using an application (like DuoSecurity or Google Authenticator) to generate the second factor because a competent hacker can intercept codes sent by text/SMS.
Time and Location-Based Settings
These settings are not required for HIPAA compliance but provide an additional layer of security. Administrators can stop logins that take place from outside of pre-set geographic regions. This is useful because many cybercrimes are launched from foreign countries. For example, logins coming from countries like Russia, China, or Iran could be forbidden by administrators. In addition, admins can lock users out when it is not their regular working hours. For example, keep users from logging in between 10pm-6am (or any time of your choosing.) Many malicious actions take place outside of regular operating hours to avoid notice. Be sure to have a way to override this in case of an emergency.
IP Restricted Logins
Restrict logins even further by requiring them to come from specific IP addresses. Administrators can use VPNs to secure traffic to their applications. The user will not be able to log in if the attempt does not come from the correct IP address.
Another factor to keep in mind is the principle of least access. Users should only have access to the systems required to perform their job duties. Not every user should have access to every system. Reducing the number of logins available decreases the attack surface and reduces risk. This is a key tenet of the Zero Trust security philosophy.
Automatic Log Out
Finally, prevent users from staying logged into sensitive systems indefinitely. Enforce automatic logouts after a point of idleness (this could be five minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour depending on your situation). This helps prevent unauthorized access to protected information after a user has legitimately logged in.
These tips represent just a few ways that administrators can improve the security of their users’ accounts and protect access to PHI.