Model Driven Security Policy Automation

On this blog, ObjectSecurity co-founder and CEO Ulrich Lang discusses security policy automation and model-driven security. The aim of this blog is to advocate advance the state of the art in this area through exchange of ideas. - -

Friday, 29 July 2011

Analysis Series: HIPAA Security Rule & Privacy Rule and “minimum necessary” access

Today I would like to discuss what the “minimum necessary” access control in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 really means and how such least privilege technical access control can be effectively implemented. The US government's HIPAA website explains:
  • The “HIPAA Privacy Rule” establishes regulations for the use and disclosure of Protected Health Information (PHI),in particular it requests the implementation of least privilege: “A central aspect of the Privacy Rule is the principle of “minimum necessary” use and disclosure”. A covered entity must make reasonable efforts to use, disclose, and request only the minimum amount of protected health information needed to accomplish the intended purpose of the use, disclosure, or request. A covered entity must develop and implement policies and procedures to reasonably limit uses and disclosures to the minimum necessary, i.e. a covered entity may not use, disclose, or request the entire medical record for a particular purpose, unless it can specifically justify the whole record as the amount reasonably needed for the purpose.“
  • The “HIPAA Security Rule” also limits uses and disclosures of PHI to the "minimum necessary," the Security Rule’s administrative safeguards section requires a covered entity to implement and periodically assess policies and procedures for authorizing access to e-PHI only when such access is appropriate. Interestingly this administrative (i.e. non-technical) section specifically states that this should be implemented “based on the user or recipient's role (role-based access)”. The technical safeguards section mandates access control “A covered entity must implement technical policies and procedures that allow only authorized persons to access electronic protected health information (e-PHI), and must “record and examine access and other activity in information systems that contain or use e-PHI.”
To technically implement least privilege access based on the “minimum necessary” for the particular “use, disclosure, or request”, technical access control must be fine-grained and contextual (e.g. based on the context of the access, the business process the requester or the patient is in, the way information is aggregated across interconnected IT systems etc.). Role-based access control (which is mentioned in the administrative section, not the technical section!) is an insufficient technical mechanism because it is not contextual enough to only grant access when needed for the particular use.
Instead, fine-grained, contextual authorization management (AM) is needed to enforce such policies. The challenge with AM is that policies are hard to author and maintain - there are simply too many technical rules, and maintaining those is too time-consuming, expensive, difficult, and error-prone. Also these technical rules will often not directly match with the human thinking about business security policies.
To solve that policy maintenance show-stopper, model-driven security (MDS) policy automation is also needed, which automatically generates technical security rules from generic security policy requirements (models) that capture, for example, HIPAA security & privacy requirements. MDS takes these models, analyzes information sources such as business processes, applications and interactions, user information and other sources, and automatically generates the technical policy rules enforced by the AM. Most importantly, MDS can automatically update the rules when users, business processes, and applications change.
Model-driven security (MDS) policy automation with fine-grained authorization management (AM) are a critical unique combination to make this happen. The award-winning ObjectSecurity OpenPMF   is the only MDS + AM product in the market. It is adopted by organizations with the most stringent security requirements, including US Navy. We are currently completing a study and a scientific publication where a number of regulations have been analyzed in a similar fashion. Please contact us if you would like further information or if you have any questions/comments.
In conclusion - better adopt effective technical mechanisms to implement the requirements effectively. Just because "best" practices for HIPAA currently do not implement “minimum necessary” effectively does not mean that your organization will get away with it when things go wrong!

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