IPC tweaks data security guidance from HO-013

30 Jan

Yesterday the Information & Privacy Commissioner/Ontario issued a paper called “Detecting and Deterring Unauthorized Access to Personal Health Information.” The paper adjusts and augments the detailed guidance on hospital data security the IPC provided in December when it issued HO-013.

In issuing HO-013 the IPC articulated numerous requirements in near checklist form. The IPC adds new requirements in Detecting and Deterring. Hospitals that are currently using HO-013 to conduct a gap analysis should now refer to Detecting and Deterring.

One exception to the augmentation is the IPC’s handing of “search controls” – controls that rest on limiting the search functionality of patient record systems. The IPC has backed off noticeably from HO-013 in Detecting and Deterring, which states:

With respect to search controls, it is important to note that open-ended search functionality may facilitate unauthorized access to personal health information in electronic information systems. For example, in the privacy breach involving the use and disclosure of personal health information for the purpose of selling or marketing RESPs, agents of the hospital were able to obtain lists of women who had recently given birth by performing open-ended searches of a patient index. To prevent this, custodians should ensure that the amount of personal health information that is displayed as a result of a search query is limited, while still enabling agents to carry out their employment, contractual or other duties. Open-ended searches for individuals should be prohibited by the search functionality and search capabilities of electronic information systems containing personal health information. Ideally, electronic information systems should be configured to ensure that search criteria return only one record of personal health information. If that is not feasible, then electronic information systems should be configured so that no more than five records of personal health information are displayed as a result of a search query.

The withdrawal makes sense. Search controls can put patient safety at risk, yet even rigid search controls are a questionable deterrent to intentional unauthorized access. Are bad actors really more likely to engage in unauthorized access because information is easy to find?

Hospitals should beware of the distinction between prescriptions that are recommendatory and prescriptions the IPC has the power to enforce. This is most important in considering the heavily-augmented breach response section of Deterring and Detecting. The IPC, for example, returns to an accountability-related idea it has pressed since making order HO-010 in 2010 by suggesting that hospitals should provide affected individuals with the name of “the agent that caused the privacy breach” in a breach notification letter. The IPC has the power to enforce breach response requirements that are derived from section 12 of PHIPA. A number of the prescriptions it makes on breach response (not necessarily the one I have identified above) have a tenuous connection to section 12 and can reasonably be viewed as recommendatory.

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