Update: Thief nabs backup data on 365,000 patients

An employee for a health care firm in Portland, Ore., had tapes, disks in his car

About 365,000 hospice and home health care patients in Oregon and Washington are being notified about the theft of computer backup data disks and tapes late last month that included personal information and confidential medical records.

In an announcement yesterday, Providence Home Services, a division of Seattle-based Providence Health Systems, said the records and other data were on several disks and tapes stolen from the car of a Providence employee at his home. The incident was reported by the employee on Dec. 31, according to the health care system.

The tapes and disks were taken home by the employee as part of a backup protocol that sent them off-site to protect them against loss from fires or other disasters. That practice, which was only used by the home health care division of the hospital system, has since been stopped, said health system spokesman Gary Walker.

"This was only done in one area of the company," Walker said. "It did not involve the hospital's database [of patients]....That one part of the company was sending data home off-site. But we should have reviewed the policy."

Walker said Thursday that the data on the tapes was encrypted, but today he corrected that information. Instead, some of the data on the tapes was password-protected at the application level, he said, while the rest of the data was stored in proprietary file formats without password-protection. "Our IT person and I ... miscommunicated about what is being done and what was being done."

The data on the disks, meanwhile, was in a proprietary file format that was not encrypted, but "is stored in a way that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for someone to access it, then make any sense out of it," he said.

From now on, all data will be made secure using additional technologies, according to Walker. "We are encrypting all the material we can encrypt now," as the health care system reviews all of its procedures and security, he said. "We are sorry that this happened and we don't want it to happen again."

Providence officials said there have been no reports that any of the stolen information has been used improperly since the incident.

Providence is notifying affected patients by mail about the theft. The information on the disks and tapes included names, addresses, dates of birth, physicians' names, insurance data, diagnoses, prescriptions and some lab results. For approximately 250,000 of the patients, Social Security numbers were on the records, according to the health system. Some of the records also included patient financial information.

Rick Cagen, CEO of Providence's Portland service area, said new backup procedures are being implemented using more traditional IT means, including secure sites in remote locations for safety and redundancy. "We do have alternate practices now," Cagen said.

The four-week delay in publicly announcing the theft was needed so Providence officials could recreate the stolen data and identify the patients who needed to be contacted, he said. The delay was also caused in part by the large number of records that had to be processed, he said.

"We realize this is a major inconvenience and cause for real concern, and we deeply apologize to everyone affected by this incident," Cagen said. "Even though we have no indication that the thief has accessed the data, we are doing all we can to help our patients and employees protect their information."

The incident is the second data theft from a motor vehicle announced this week. Yesterday, Minneapolis-based financial services company Ameriprise Financial Inc. said it is notifying some 158,000 customers and 68,000 financial advisers that a laptop containing personal information about them -- including names, account numbers or Social Security numbers -- was stolen from a parked car late last month (see "Ameriprise notifying 226,000 customers, advisers of data theft").

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