According to the latest HIPAA-related guidance (Guidance) published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a cloud service provider (CSP) maintaining a client's protected health information (PHI) is a business associate even when the CSP can't access or view the PHI. In other words, even where the PHI is encrypted and the CSP lacks the decryption key, the CSP is a business associate because it maintains the PHI and, therefore, has HIPAA-related obligations with respect to the PHI.
While encryption protects ePHI by significantly reducing the risk of the information being viewed by unauthorized persons, such protections alone cannot adequately safeguard the confidentiality, integrity and availability of the ePHI, such as ensuring that the information is not corrupted by malware, or ensuring through contingency planning that the data remains available to authorized persons even during emergency or disaster situations. Further, encryption does not address other safeguards that are also important to maintaining confidentiality, such as administrative safeguards to analyze the risks to the ePHI or physical safeguards for systems and services that may house the ePHI."
It makes sense to treat a CSP as a business associate if it holds PHI, even if it cannot view or access that PHI. After all, a business associate is a person or entity that performs a function or service on behalf of a covered entity (or another business associate) that requires it to create, receive, maintain, or transmit PHI.
Still, HHS's explanation is less than satisfying, perhaps because it rather crudely mixes together very distinct HIPAA obligations: protecting the confidentiality of PHI, on one hand, and protecting the integrity and availability of PHI, on the other.
Under the HIPAA regulations, a business associate is only required to provide notice to the covered entity following the discovery of a breach of unsecured PHI. "Unsecured" PHI is defined as PHI that is "not rendered unusable, unreadable, or indecipherable to unauthorized persons through the use of a technology or methodology specified by the Secretary [of HHS]..." – in other words, PHI that is not encrypted at a level that meets HHS's standards. The HIPAA regulations also say that a breach excludes a "disclosure of PHI where a covered entity or business associate has a good faith belief that an unauthorized person to whom the disclosure was made would not reasonably have been able to retain such information." Obviously, a disclosure of PHI that cannot be viewed will also not be able to be retained.
HHS contends that encryption "alone cannot adequately safeguard the confidentiality" of the PHI, but, later in the Guidance, concedes that if the PHI is encrypted at a level that meets HHS's standards, an unauthorized incident would fall within the breach "safe harbor" and would not need to be reported to the CSP's customer. In such a case, the confidentiality of the PHI would be adequately safeguarded by encryption alone and the CSP arguably would not have an obligation to do anything else under HIPAA to protect the confidentiality of the PHI. The CSP would have an ongoing obligations, however, to protect the integrity and accessibility of the encrypted PHI under HIPAA. The encryption "blindfold" will simplify the CSP's obligations under HIPAA.
A CSP is in a tricky position if it holds encrypted PHI for a customer, but does not know that it holds it. The Guidance emphasizes that if a CSP maintains PHI for a customer that is a covered entity or business associate, it must execute a business associate agreement with the customer, and risks enforcement action (such as reported here) by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) within HHS if it doesn't have one.
"OCR recognizes that there may, however, be circumstances where a CSP may not have actual or constructive knowledge that a covered entity or another business associate is using its services to create, receive, maintain, or transmit ePHI. The HIPAA Rules provide an affirmative defense in cases where a CSP takes action to correct any non-compliance within 30 days ... of the time that it knew or should have known of the violation... This affirmative defense does not, however, apply in cases where the CSP was not aware of the violation due to its own willful neglect."
Two key takeaways from the Guidance for a CSP? If you are blindfolded from viewing the data you maintain or transmit on behalf of a customer, or otherwise do not know whether the data might bring HIPAA obligations along with it, take reasonable steps to find out if the customer is a covered entity or business associate and whether the data includes PHI. If so, execute a business associate agreement. Then, make sure the blindfold (i.e., encryption level) meets HHS's standards and do NOT accept or have access to the decryption key. This way, you can focus your HIPAA compliance efforts on protecting the integrity and accessibility of the data, not on protecting its confidentiality.
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