NIH told patients about security breach weeks after incident

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, informed patients on March 20 that a laptop computer containing their unencrypted personal data was stolen from a researcher's car on Feb. 29 -- nearly three weeks after the incident occurred.

Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, NHLBI director said in a statement that the computer contained information on about 2,500 patients enrolled in a cardiac magnetic resonance imaging study conducted on the NIH campus and Suburban Hospital, both located in Bethesda, Md.

Nabel said the information on the stolen laptop included patients' names, birth dates, hospital medical record numbers, and data such as measurements and diagnoses that were contained in MRI reports. The computer did not contain any other medical information.

The laptop was turned off and password-protected, but the data had not been encrypted -- an apparent violation of a June 2006 policy memo from the Office of Management and Budget directing federal agencies to encrypt all personally identifiable information stored on all mobile devices.

OMB developed that policy after a laptop and external hard drive containing records on 26.5 million veterans were stolen from the Maryland home of a Veterans Affairs Department analyst. OMB reported earlier this month that the number of security breaches in agencies' information systems -- which includes unauthorized access to federal networks -- jumped from 5,146 in fiscal 2006 to 12,986 in fiscal 2007.

Nabel said the NIH Center for Information Technology determined that the theft appeared random and "the incident poses a low likelihood of identify theft or financial implications." She said NHLBI will work to ensure that all its laptops comply with the OMB encryption policy. In addition, NIH information technology staff will inspect them to confirm that appropriate software has been installed and enforce computer security training for all agency personnel.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a nonprofit cybersecurity research organization in Bethesda, Md., said any agency breaching the OMB encryption policy was "thumbing their nose at the White House and deserves to be skewered." Paller said the cost of encrypting laptops should not be an issue, because in June 2007, the General Services Administration awarded 10 contracts for data encryption software available to all federal agencies. Those contracts, Paller said, provide "phenenomal deals" that cut the cost of encryption software by up to 80 percent.

The loss of the NIH laptop shows that "people are still way too casual when it comes to protecting sensitive health information, and researchers are the most casual," said Dr. Deborah Peel, founder of Patient Privacy Rights, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit group that works to ensure individuals have control over access to their health records.

Peel added that the incident would make people leery of using electronic health records by adding to the perception that they are easy to penetrate. She said she would never put her patients' health or personally identifiable information on a laptop.

VA learned its lesson from last summer's laptop theft, said Charlie De Sanno, executive director of VA's Office of Enterprise Infrastructure Engineering, at a conference last month in McLean, Va., last month. "Security is our number one priority," DeSanno said. The department mandates encryption of laptop hard drives as well as thumb drives.

Robert Howard, VA's assistant secretary for information and technology, told the same conference that ensuring secure personal data requires not only adherence to OMB guidelines but an institutional "culture of responsibility" to prevent future breaches.

Study participants whose information was contained on the stolen NIH laptop should contact NHLBI by phone at 301-594-2111, or by e-mail at NHLBI.listens@nih.gov to share any concerns related to the theft. The agency has said it will respond to all such inquiries within two business days.

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