Breach Safe Harbor

In the context of medical data, Safe Harbor typically refers to the Safe Harbor provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule explained here. Breach Safe Harbor is a little different. It basically means you’re off the hook if you breach encrypted health data. (But not necessarily. More on that below.)

I’m not a lawyer, so this isn’t legal advice. Even the HHS, who coin the term “Breach Safe Harbor” in their guidance portal, weasels out of saying they’re giving legal guidance by saying “The contents of this database lack the force and effect of law, except as authorized by law …”

Quality of encryption

You can’t just say that data were encrypted before they were breached. Weak encryption won’t cut it. You have to use acceptable algorithms and procedures.

How can you know whether you’ve encrypted data well enough to be covered Breach Safe Harbor? HHS cites four NIST publications for further guidance. (Not that I’m giving legal advice. I’m merely citing the HHS, who also is not giving legal advice.)

Here are the four publications.

Maybe encryption isn’t enough

At one point Tennessee law said a breach of encrypted data was still a breach. According to Dempsey and Carlin [1]

In 2016, Tennessee repealed its encryption safe harbor, requiring notice of breach of even encrypted data, but then in 2017, after criticism, the state restored a safe harbor for “information that has been encrypted in accordance with the current version of the Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 140-2 if the encryption key has not been acquired by an unauthorized person.”

This is interesting for a couple reasons. First, there is a precedent for requiring notification of encrypted data. Second, this underscores the point above that encryption in general is not sufficient to avoid having to give notice of a breach: standard-compliant encryption is sufficient.

Consulting help

If you would like technical or statistical advice on how to prevent or prepare for a data breach, or how to respond after a data breach after the fact, we can help.


[1] Jim Dempsey and John P. Carlin. Cybersecurity Law Fundamentals, Second Edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *