Part 3 of a cybersecurity series

In part one of this series on healthcare cybersecurity, I discussed the dangers of sending protected health information (PHI) across the Internet from a public Wi-Fi service, and how to reduce the risk of having that data intercepted by unauthorized persons. In part two, I outlined ways for smaller medical practices to protect that patient data through VPNs and Google’s HIPAA compliant apps. This final installment is about laptop encryption, a major source of grief for physicians and the healthcare systems they work for.

On its website, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights publishes a long list of healthcare providers who have experienced data breaches. Nick-named the “Wall of Shame,” it lists over 1,000 providers who have had their PHI compromised in a variety of ways. But one mistake that appears over and over again on this list is stolen laptops that contained patient information that was not encrypted. Healthcare providers have had to pay millions of dollars in fines for these careless accidents, most of which could have been avoided if someone had taken the time to install encryption software on the laptop or install an encrypted hard drive.t

Encryption, which essentially makes electronic information unreadable by converting it into gibberish until it is unlocked with an encryption key, should be installed on any laptop or other mobile device containing PHI, personally identifiable information (PII), as well as a variety of other types of sensitive data. There are numerous ways to accomplish that, depending on your resources, the skill set of the person who handles your IT operations, and your budget. Assuming for the moment that your practice has a limited budget and can’t afford the expensive, high-end programs used by large hospitals, what are your options?

For Windows-based machines, one option is a free, built-in program called BitLocker. In laptops running Windows 7, it’s available if the machine has the Professional or Enterprise versions of the operating system. It can be accessed from the Control Panel under the System and Security icon. Windows 8.1 and some versions of Windows 10 have device encryption in place by default. It may require activation in order for it to actually protect your data. Apple computers can take advantage of FileVault2, which can be activated from the Preferences section under Security and Privacy.