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AHS privacy breach 'troubling,' says digital security expert

by Staff (feat. Tom Keenan)

CBC News
September 27, 2016

Without better technical safeguards, the confidential medical files of Albertans will remain vulnerable to security breaches, says one digital security expert.

Alberta Health Services issued a warning Monday after thousands of patients had their confidential health information "inappropriately accessed" by a former AHS employee.

The former employee accessed the information of 1,309 Albertans, and viewed the demographic information of another 11,539 patients.

The electronic files were accessed on the AHS Netcare and Netcare Personal Directory programs between January 2004 and July 2015.

"How do you not notice this?" asked Tom Keenan, a professor at the University of Calgary and the author of Technocreep.

"You need to go out there and have a proactive system that catches excessive accesses. If companies have the ability to do that, AHS — which has quite a large IT budget — should build in checks so they know when something weird is happening."

AHS said it began auditing the worker after receiving a complaint from another AHS employee, and are reassuring patients that none of the records have been altered or compromised.

However, Keenan said it's "troubling" that health officials would continue to rely on whistle-blowers to maintain the privacy of patient files.

He said government computer systems should be flagging any suspicious activity in real time, and there should be better control of access to patient records among medical professionals.

"The hospital and doctors take the view, you're unconscious and we need to treat you, so we better know everything about you and any delays might endanger your life," Keenan said. "So typically, there is a pretty wide open access, once you get past that gate of NetCare.

"Once they're in that system, if you're their patient, they know pretty much everything about you."

Although Keenan acknowledged the importance of the electronic systems for tracking patient information, he suggested the programs should be rewritten to ensure files are only accessible by medical staff actively treating a patient.

As it stands now, Keenan said any medical professional with an account could scroll through the files of any patient, at any given time.

It's not the first time AHS has been the target of a security breach, and Keenan said they will continue to happen if better safeguards are not put in place.

"There is already an ethical code, and all these employees have agreed to that, but what it comes down to is human nature," said Keenan. 

"There are so many files out there, so many medical records and so many people that have access to them … Our health records aren't quite as secure as we thought they were."

AHS said patients affected by the breach are being notified via direct-mailed letters that were sent out Monday. A phone-in line has also been established so patients can call and request a full audit of activity on their files, and Keenan recommended that patients find out when and where their files were accessed.  

Although Keenan doesn't believe the employee responsible for the breach had nefarious motivations, he said the incident should serve as a wake-up call.

"Often it's just curiosity, and AHS is not saying a lot, but they're speculating that this person just got bored and was looking at people's files out of curiosity," said Keenan. 

"There is a whole range of human motivations, but the point is that it shouldn't be done and it really ought to be caught."

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