Health insurance provider Anthem disclosed on Feb. 4 that it was the victim of a data breach that exposed 80 million records on customers and employees.
Multiple Anthem brands—including Anthem Blue Cross, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Amerigroup, Caremore, Unicare, Healthlink and DeCare—are impacted by the breach.
In a letter posted on the Anthem Website, Joseph Swedish, president and CEO, said the company was the target of a very sophisticated external cyber-attack. The attackers gained access to personal information, including birth dates, medical IDs/Social Security numbers, street addresses, email addresses and income data, he explained.
"Based on what we know now, there is no evidence that credit card or medical information, such as claims, test results or diagnostic codes, were targeted or compromised," Swedish stated.
Once the breach was discovered, Anthem contacted the FBI and took steps to close possible security vulnerabilities, and Anthem has retained FireEye's Mandiant cyber-response division to investigate the breach and help on response, he said.
FireEye did not respond to a request for comment from eWEEK by press time.
"Anthem's own associates' personal information—including my own—was accessed during this security breach," Swedish wrote. "We join you in your concern and frustration, and I assure you that we are working around the clock to do everything we can to further secure your data."
Anthem will now also be providing free credit monitoring and identity protection services for impacted individuals.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has direct relevance in the Anthem breach, said Eric Cowperthwaite, vice president of advanced security and strategy, Core Security.
Cowperthwaite, who was chief information security officer at Providence Health and Services from 2006 to 2013, told eWEEK: "Name, Social Security number and medical ID are elements of Protected Health Information (PHI) as defined by the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules. This is absolutely a breach of PHI and the requirements of the HIPAA Security Rule."
Although many recent data breaches—such as those that affected Home Depot, Target and Staples—were first publicly reported by third parties, Anthem discovered and reported its data breach.
It's a very good sign that Anthem is being proactive and responsible about letting the public, regulators and their customers know what has happened, Cowperthwaite said.
However, the means by which the breach actually might have been enabled are still unknown.
"When it comes to internal systems where data is stored, stronger access controls are a must, and in this case, it looks like multi-factor authentication was not being used," Jason Hart, vice president of cloud services, identity and data protection at Gemalto, told eWEEK. "From a security standpoint, that is surprising."
A broader use of multi-factor authentication for all internal systems could have helped prevent or limited the scale of the Anthem breach, Cowperthwaite said. "The lesson that everyone clearly should learn is to require two-factor authentication for access to critical or sensitive data," he said.
While Anthem is doing what it can with law enforcement and on its own to protect its users, consumers don't have many tools available to protect themselves from provider breaches, according to security experts.
"There is little consumers can do other than demand that companies take a stronger stance on protecting their personal information," Hart said. "The real responsibility lies with the companies as well as regulators that determine the rules for what data needs to be more secure."
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.