The healthcare sector accounted for more than four out of ten US customer data breaches recorded by the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) in 2013, the organisation's latest figures show.
Although healthcare is a large sector in the US compared to many industrialised countries, the 267 breaches (43 percent) reported still take a sizable chunk out of the total of 619 across all industries.
The health sector was good at revealing the number of patient records breached, with 84 percent giving that information. A possible reason for the honesty is that the sector faces mandatory breach reporting to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for all incidents above 500 records.
"This is significant because it demonstrates that regulations in this area have a powerful impact," suggested ITRC president and CEO, Eva Velasquez.
"When you compare the number of reported data breach incidents in other industry sectors that do not report the raw number of records affected, to those in the medical field, you see a much smaller percentage," she said.
Breaches across all sectors rose by 30 percent compared to 2012 with the total number of records exposed in the 619 incidents hitting 57,868,922, including 40 million disclosed (so far) in the Target retail breach.
The ITRC downplays the raw number of records because of the difficulty in comparing breaches involving different types of data. In fact, the number of breached records for healthcare was 4,659,965, which underlines the extent to which the sector is plagued by a large number of small incidents.
The commonest cause of breaches was external hacking, which accounted for 25.8 percent of incidents, but it would be dangerous to underestimate other causes. Data-on-the-move was behind 12.9 percent of breaches, insider theft another 11.6 percent and employee error and negligence 9.2 percent.
Given the scale of what happened in November to Target, it is interesting that the largest cause other than hacking was through third-party sub-contractors on 14.4 percent. Although this breach was recorded under hacking, the US retailer's woes are reported (although not confirmed) to have originated with an abuse of remote access credentials handed out to an air-conditioning firm.
"The recent data breach reported by Target has resulted in more than just consumer resentment. Consumers are now starting to discuss and ask questions about this important issue. Data breach reporting requirements need to be standardized, mandatory, and also inclusive of paper breaches as a reporting trigger," said Velasquez.
Paper breaches are easy to overlook but in fact accounted for 12 percent of known breaches. The ITRC noted that losing paper records would not currently trigger a breach notification in many US states.
"California expanding its Data Breach Notification requirements to include certain types of online credentialing and authentication information is a step in the right direction as we conduct more business and other activities on line."
Because it updates daily, the ITRC presents an interesting a rolling snapshot of US data breaches. The figures for 2014 so far can be found on its website.