Last week’s “WannaCry” worldwide Ransomware attack was particularly targeted against international health organizations. Though the attack was thwarted not without a little good luck and less financial loss that might have been predicted, it unsurprisingly triggered responses from U.S. government agencies including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and, with specific reference to health care providers, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). It also is no surprise that these government agencies took a carrot and stick approach – speaking about cooperation on one hand and enforcement (by OCR) on the other.

On the cooperative side, DHS and HHS have sought to work with the tech sector to employ cybersecurity best practices to address the ransomware threat, now the most common problem faced across the cyber universe but especially in health care. DHS has opined that “Individual users are often the first line of defense against this and other threats, and we encourage all Americans to update your operating systems and implement vigorous cybersecurity practices including installation of the latest patches and avoiding phishing efforts that can implant ransomware to lock down a system. Among the recommended best practices include employee training to avoid clicking on unfamiliar links and files in emails, and to backing up data to prevent possible loss. Beyond those somewhat simplistic suggestions, one detects a decided trend towards to adoption of the voluntary framework of cybersecurity standards issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which was issued in 2014 and is in the process of being updated per public comments and meetings. This also is consistent with the recently issued Executive Order that mandates federal department compliance to the same standards suggested for the private sector, particularly the NIST framework.

The OCR enforcement component is more problematic. On May 17, 2017, Iliana Peters, a HIPAA compliance and enforcement official at OCR, announced at a Georgetown University Law Center cybersecurity conference that OCR will “presume a breach has occurred” when an HIPAA covered entity or associate has experienced a ransomware attack, due to the nature of how ransomware attacks work.” This is somewhat at odds with the way that ransomware actually works. Ransomware generally is a form of blackmail where a Trojan will deprive a data owner of access to its own data unless a ransom is paid (often by Bitcoin or another block chain currency). OCR’s presumption can be overcome especially if health care data were encrypted prior to the incident (and presumably that would include data at rest). HHS’s ransomware guide provides that

“Unless the covered entity or business associate can demonstrate that there is a ‘…low probability that the PHI has been compromised,’ based on the factors set forth in the Breach Notification Rule, a breach of PHI is presumed to have occurred . . . .”. “The entity must then comply with the applicable breach notification provisions, including notification to affected individuals without unreasonable delay, to the Secretary of HHS, and to the media (for breaches affecting over 500 individuals) in accordance with HIPAA breach notification requirements.” Thus, if there is anything to take away from this, it is to encrypt PHI – period.

OCR offers to work with the private sector to provide technical assistance. This might be useful to very small, unsophisticated organizations. Larger private sector entities arguably have resources and technical skills that surpass those of the government. Indeed, the President’s Executive Order recognizes this.