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Health Data Breaches: A Ticking Time Bomb

The botched Affordable Care Act rollout earlier this year reminded millions of Americans of the particularly acute pain that can accompany health insurance and healthcare delivery. Millions more faced chaos when Target announced that data from 40 million credit and debit cards was stolen by hackers in one of the largest financial breaches in history. But what do you get when you combine the intimacy of healthcare with the propensity for data breaches prevalent in the financial sector? A recipe for disaster.

On Sunday, Politico published an alarming wake-up call to the healthcare industry. The article – Electronic health records ripe for theft – found that while healthcare providers maintain some of the most sensitive types of information about individuals, the medical industry as a whole is woefully unprepared when it comes to data breaches. Indeed, according to security ratings firm BitSight Technologies, "health care is the industry sector lease prepared for a cyberattack" with "the highest volume of threats and the lowest response time."

An April 2014 private industry notification by the FBI listed three primary reasons for the increased likelihood of attacks:

• The mandatory transition from paper to electronic health records,

• Lax cybersecurity standards, and

• Higher financial payout for medical records in the black market.

Thieves looking to steal your data are almost always in it for the money. But when it comes to protecting our identity and finances, we're always told to focus on our Social Security numbers. Protecting your Social Security number is not a separate issue from protecting your health data. Indeed, as all seniors on Medicare know, your Medicare number IS your Social Security number, followed by a one to two-digit code at the end. However, according to the World Privacy Forum, "while a stolen credit card or Social Security number fetches $1 or less on the black market, a person's medical information can yield hundreds of times more." The Politico article notes that "a full identity profile contained in a single record can bring as much as $500."

Think about that. We're always told to protect our social security numbers at all costs, but they general only fetch a dollar or so on the black market. But your personal medical data is worth potentially hundreds of times more. That means thieves are hundreds of times more interested in accessing your private health information than simply getting their hands on your Social Security number.

Something else to keep in mind: once your health data is out in the open, it's there for good. There's really no way to 'take back' or 'undo' the damage once your acquaintances and future employers know which medications you're on, which chronic conditions you're suffering from, and if you've been to rehab. Health data breaches also increase the possibility for discrimination against individuals with physical, mental, or emotional impairments, even if they are otherwise capable of performing necessary functions at current or prospective jobs. Until healthcare providers and policymakers get serious about protecting your medical data, the time bomb will keep ticking.

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