Are All Ransomware Attacks Breaches?

ransomware-breach or incident only

It’s one of those questions that never goes away.  The answer is, “Maybe” and very definitely, “Not always.” Contrary to popular belief, even after ransomware attacks, the safe harbor still applies when it comes to breaches.  If your PHI data was encrypted prior to the ransomware attack that encrypted (aka “held for ransom”) it, you may very well not have suffered a breach. Which means that there may be no need to conduct a four-factor risk assessment.

If only it could be so simple. However, per OCR’s weigh-in, you do need to ascertain that the data attacked was encrypted at the time. If it was encrypted, it’s a security incident, but not a data breach. I’ll dig into that shortly.  Far too often I see posts and blogs that adamantly declare, “If a ransomware attack occurs, it must be a breach.”  Not so fast. It’s not so black and white.

OCR has stated that it’s a fact-based determination as to whether or not a breach occurred. If a breach, then you do need to notify OCR, individuals and potentially, the media.  If you run into a consultant (and sometimes counsel) who states that all ransomware attacks absolutely equal a breach, get a second opinion.

Data Encryption & the Burden of Proof

Here’s the flip side – when encrypted PHI may become unsecure, representing a breach due to a ransomware attack. Keep in mind that when you’ve powered up and logged in to your laptop or other mobile device, data may be unencrypted at the time because you’re accessing the data. When ransomware hits and those files are unencrypted at the time of the attack, you may have a breach of unsecured PHI on your hands.

But – if you do use full disk encryption and your laptop was not turned on (which means your laptop wasn’t unencrypted), or if no files were unencrypted at the time of the attack, the PHI was not compromised. No breach occurred.

Also, if the ransomware attack hits your backup media, encrypted at the time of the attack, there is a high likelihood that no PHI breach occurred.  Triple-check to be sure and be able to prove it if OCR comes to call. The burden of proof lies with you.

The burden of proof is greater under other circumstances, like when a ransomware attack occurs and PHI is not encrypted.  At that point, you absolutely need to conduct a four-factor risk assessment.  It bears mentioning, though, that if you have top talent forensic analysts who can prove that no PHI was siphoned off, you still may not be required to notify OCR or individuals because the PHI was not compromised.

Clearly, it’s not a simple black and white, yes or no answer to the breach question. Be careful. Preserve all evidence. Look closely at the circumstances to make sure no breach occurred that requires notification. But if a consultant or counsel, going on the basis of a blog post, says that you absolutely must notify because ransomware attacks always equal a breach, don’t take my word for it. Just ask OCR.

Compliance Planning includes the “what to do” in the case of a security incident and data breach. Chris Apgar, CISSP and Julia Huddleston, CIPP, CIPM, work with clients nationwide on HIPAA privacy and security compliance, and address the need for assistance with expanded use of electronic health information exchange. They also prep clients for the rigorous process of HITRUST, SOC2 and ISO certifications.