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Hard work – The ONC privacy and security tiger team

Last week I attended the Healthcare IT Standards Committee meeting. The all day meeting covered a wide variety of topics ranging from the interoperability framework, NHIN governance as well as updates from several teams, including the security and privacy tiger team. The Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) who heads this effort has done a great deal of hard work in gaining the perspectives from a broad set of constituents and communicating progress. Many commercial products and services have working examples in healthcare information exchange on a broad level.

My focus for this discussion has to do with privacy and security. Much of the discussion last week involved transport layer security. Clearly the problem is broader than that. In working on past projects with this sort of scope, I have found that a common understand can be found through the adoption and use of a threat model. There are several strong approaches that can be considered for use. I have found the following to work well.

The general idea is to apply a threat model to a set of applications communicating over NHIN. The process recommends a step by step approach of identifying security objectives; reviewing the application in terms of components, data flows and trust boundaries; decomposing the application in terms of components to identify areas where security needs to be evaluated; creating a structured list of threats; and enumerating likely vulnerabilities associated with the class of application in development. Microsoft advocates a threat classification scheme known as STRIDE. This scheme aims to characterize the threats with respect to the exploit that may be employed. This acronym stands for:

• Spoofing Identity
• Tampering with data
• Repudiation
• Information disclosure
• Denial of service
• Elevation of privilege

These areas provide a helpful mechanism for enumerating threats to the application. Closely associated with this process is a scoring scheme to help evaluate risk to the application. Another acronym applies to this problem as well: DREAD.
DREAD attempts to quantify, compare and prioritize the amount of risk presented by a given threat. It stands for:

• Damage potential
• Reproducibility
• Exploitability
• Affected users
• Discoverability

Typically each of these areas is assessed on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 referring to the most severe risk. As always risk needs to be evaluated in terms of both probability and impact.

Perhaps the application of these ideas will be helpful as NHIN takes shape.

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