HIPAA Primer

Lesson 3 | The Privacy Rule and Security Rule

Download Lesson PDF

HIPAA is broken down into two broad sections.

  1. The Privacy Rule provides the definitions for HIPAA and the first step towards a compliance program.
  2.  The Security Rule defines the ways in which an organization is required to implement the technical controls and procedures.

Privacy Rules

The Privacy Rule defines the administrative requirements of HIPAA. It’s easiest to think of the Privacy Rule as the “what” of HIPAA.

Entity types

Covered entities (care providers, insurance companies, and clearinghouses) and business associates (3rd parties that support covered entities.

Protected Health Information (PHI)

Protected health information (PHI), or the data covered under HIPAA.

Required disclosures of PHI

Covered entities must disclose PHI in two situations - 1) to the individual (or their authorized representative) and 2) to HHS for the purpose of an investigation.

Permitted disclosures of PHI

In addition to the above 2 required disclosures, PHI can be disclosed for the following explicit reasons:

  1. Delivery of care;
  2. Payment for care.
  3. Healthcare operations.

Delivery of care and payment for care are self-explanatory. “Healthcare operations”, on the other hand, is a general bucket allowing for interpretation and sometimes abuse of PHI. “Healthcare operations” includes business functions, fundraising, fraud prevention, case management, de-identification, and for improving activities of covered entities. Recently, these generic uses of PHI have been used to allow for mass data sharing for data analytics (ML and AI).

Minimum necessary

PHI should only be collected and accessed in the minimum necessary way for the covered entity to carry out its functions.


HIPAA requires that all workforce members (employees, consultants, volunteers) receive training about HIPAA and the policies and procedures of the organization.

Privacy Officer

A privacy official must be appointed to be responsible for creating and maintaining privacy policies and procedures.

Policies and procedures

Policies and procedures must be created and ensure alignment with HIPAA requirements.


Violations under HIPAA are $100-$50,000 per violation, with an annual cap of $1.5M.

Notice of Privacy practice

Covered entities must provide customers with clear notice about the types of data collected, the use of the data being collected, the individual’s rights in terms of the data, and a point of contact information related to individual data. This is similar to what newer regulations, such as GDPR and CCPA, require in terms of data subject requests, data usage, and disclosures.

There’s more to the Privacy Rule but those details are only relevant if you are a healthcare compliance attorney or Privacy Officer for a covered entity or business associate.

Security Rule

The Security Rule defines the technical requirements of HIPAA. Like many compliance regimes, it is heavily aligned with NIST security standards. The Security Rule is divided into three categories of requirements - 1) Administrative, 2) Physical, and 3) Technical.

Requirements in the HIPAA Security Rule are either Required or Addressable, which is a bit confusing because all of the HIPAA requirements are actually required. The main difference between Required and Addressable is that Addressable requirements can be met with other, mitigating controls.

Administrative Safeguards

Risk Assessment

Under HIPAA, every organization must assess the risk to PHI. The process involves identifying threats, risk, and impacts on an organization if PHI is breached. Mitigating controls should be established and documented for all risks.

This should be done on a regular basis. As a rule of thumb, a risk assessment should be performed on a regular, annual cadence as well as with significant changes to procedures or technologies.

The definitive guide on performing risk assessments and managing risk is NIST - https://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/Legacy/SP/nistspecialpublication800-30r1.pdf.

Security Personnel

Similar to the Privacy Rule personnel requirement, an individual needs to be appointed to create and maintain security policies and procedures.

Information Access

Role-based access policies and procedures need to be implemented. HIPAA audits frown on shared accounts, even privileged accounts like root or admin. All accounts should be assigned to individuals and only individuals that need access to PHI should be granted access to PHI.

Workforce Training

All workforce members have to be trained in security policies and procedures. In practical, day-to-day work, specific procedures, and types of security implementations (backups schedules, encryption standards, etc) should be readily accessible to ensure ongoing compliance.


Organizations need to do regular assessments of how their security posture aligns with the Security Rule. Some form of regular, external audit, vulnerability assessment, and/or penetration test should be performed as a part of ongoing evaluation.

Physical Safeguards

Facility Access

Access to physical facilities (offices, data centers, etc) needs to be restricted. In the case of cloud-based technology, this is addressed by the cloud services provider (AWS, Microsoft Azure, etc).

Device Security

Computers and other devices that access PHI or systems with access to PHI need to be secured. This falls under the bucket of endpoint or perimeter security.

Technical Safeguards

Access Management

Technical security controls need to be implemented to secure technology that has access to PHI.

Audit Controls

Tools need to be implemented to log access to systems and data.

Integrity Controls

PHI needs to be monitored to ensure it is not improperly modified or deleted

Data Transmission

Data in transit needs to be secured. The most common means is through end-to-end encryption.