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Mobile Devices and HIPAA

Mobile Devices and HIPAA

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the HIPAA Security Rule outlines national standards designed to protect individuals’ electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) that is “created, received, used, or maintained by a covered entity.”

Unauthorized disclosure of PHI is a risk because mobile devices store data on the device itself in one of two ways:

1.  Within the computer “onboard memory”

2.  Within the SIM card or memory chip

Thus, mobile devices used to exchange ePHI retain a record of that data on the device. In addition, mobile devices may not restrict user access to data through the use of encryption software or authentication features. Therefore, covered entities must be aware of the unique security risk inherent in using mobile devices to exchange ePHI.

Mobile devices are particularly vulnerable to loss and theft because of their small size and portability. The most common form of security breach is the theft of mobile devices. Mobile devices are typically small, light and highly visible to would-be thieves looking for an opportunity to take a phone left behind in a public space, such as at a restaurant.

In addition, unlike laptops and PCs, clinicians are far more likely to use their own personal mobile devices, rather than employer-issued mobile devices, to access and exchange ePHI. The use of mobile devices to access ePHI raises several risks to health care providers:

  • Authentication – Mobile device users do not tend to enter passwords or provide biometric identification to access information stored on the mobile device. The lack of authentication on mobile devices presents a risk that any user of the device could access ePHI stored on the device.


  • Encryption – Typically, data stored on personal mobile devices is not encrypted. Thus, ePHI stored on a mobile device could be retrieved and shared by anyone with access to the mobile device.


  • Wi-Fi Connection – Mobile devices that use public Wi-Fi or unsecure cellular networks to send and receive information risk exposing ePHI. Unless mobile device users connect to a secure web site to transmit data or connect using a VPN (“virtual private networking”), which encrypts data to and from the mobile device, there is a risk ePHI could be compromised.


The HIPAA Security Rule allows healthcare providers to communicate electronically with patients, such as through email, but the law requires covered entities to “apply reasonable safeguards when doing so.” Importantly for healthcare professionals and their employers, the Security Rule “requires appropriate administrative, physical and technical safeguards to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and security of electronic protected health information.” Issues regarding each of these types of safeguards pertaining to mobile devices are summarized below.

Administrative Safeguards: Administrative safeguards “provide management, accountability and oversight structure for covered entities to ensure proper safeguards and policies and procedures are in place” to protect ePHI. Administrative safeguards include, but are not limited to, the following:

Conducting periodic risk assessments of mobile device use, include an assessment of whether personal mobile devices are being used to exchange ePHI and whether proper authentication, encryption and physical protections are in place to secure the exchange of ePHI;

Establishing an electronic process to ensure the ePHI is not destroyed or altered by an unauthorized third party; 

Establishing processes and procedures to appropriately protect ePHI in a mobile device environment, including establishing encryption and security breach protocols for mobile device use, among others;

Training clinicians on the processes and procedures to use when using mobile devices to access ePHI and educating clinicians on the risks of data breaches, HIPAA violations and fines.

Physical Safeguards: It is important to provide physical safeguards to protect ePHI stored on and exchanged by mobile devices. Typical steps healthcare providers take to safeguard mobile devices include:

Keeping an inventory of personal mobile devices used by healthcare professionals to access and transmit ePHI

Storing mobile devices in locked offices or lockers

Installing mobile management programs in help locate a lost or stolen mobile device

Using remote shutdown tools to prevent data breaches by remotely locking mobile devices

Technical Safeguards: Technical safeguards, such as encryption, can protect ePHI transmitted between healthcare provider and patient. Technical safeguards are the “automated processes used to protect data and control access to data.” Examples of technical safeguards for mobile devices include, but are not limited to, the following:

Installing and regularly updating anti-malicious software (also called malware) on mobile devices

Installing firewalls where appropriate

Applying encryption to ePHI and metadata

Installing IT backup capabilities, such as off-site data centers and/or private clouds, to provide redundancy and access to electronic health information

Adopting biometric authentication tools to verify the person using the mobile device is authorized to access the ePHI

Ensuring mobile devices use secure, encrypted Secure Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (“HTTPS”) similar to those used in banking and financial transactions to provide encrypted communication and secure identification of a network web server.

Have more questions and possibly feel overwhelmed with this information, feel free to reach out to Patrice at 973.448.0070 ext 312 or email  


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