By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
The Wyoming Department of Health saw a data breach that exposed the health information of nearly 165,000 Wyoming residents.
The department announced the breach on Tuesday in a release that also detailed its plan to respond.
The department became aware of a breach involving protected health information on March 10, when it discovered a staff member had inappropriately handled the health information of approximately 164,021 Wyoming residents beginning as early as Nov. 5, 2020.
The incident involves an unintentional exposure of 53 files containing coronavirus and influenza test result data and one file containing breath alcohol test results.
These files were mistakenly uploaded to private and public online storage locations, known as repositories, on servers belonging to GitHub.com, an internet-based company that allows users to develop software, control which versions of software they release and manage the software code.
While GitHub.com has privacy and security policies and procedures in place regarding the use of data on its platform, the mistakes made by the WDH employee allowed the information to be exposed, the department said.
The information was also unintentionally disclosed, meaning it was made available to individuals who were not authorized to receive it, on GitHub’s public site as early as Jan. 8.
The exposed health information included the results of coronavirus tests that were electronically reported to the WDH for Wyoming residents, including name or patient identification, address, date of birth, test results and dates of service.
These coronavirus tests could have been performed anywhere in the United States between January 2020 to March of this year.
“While WDH staff intended to use this software service only for code storage and maintenance rather than to maintain files containing health information, a significant and very unfortunate error was made when the test result data was also uploaded to GitHub.com,” said WDH Director Michael Ceballos.
He noted the affected files did not contain Social Security numbers or banking, financial or health insurance information.
WDH started sending notices to some potentially affected individuals on Monday. However, contact information was unfortunately incomplete for many others.
“We are taking this situation very seriously and extend a sincere apology to anyone affected. We are committed to being open about the situation and to offering our help,” Ceballos said.
A special WDH information line dedicated to the incident has been established at 1-833-847-5916. The phone line will be available Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Aug. 6.
Wyoming residents who received coronavirus or influenza tests anywhere in the United States between January 2020 and March 9 but who do not receive a written notice from the department within the next two weeks should call the information line to learn if their information was involved.
In addition, anyone who received a breath alcohol test performed by law enforcement in Wyoming between April 19, 2012 and Jan. 27 who doesn’t receive a letter should call as well.
“We recognize maintaining personal information privacy is important. Because we want to be extra cautious about this situation, we are offering affected individuals one year of free identity theft protection through IdentityForce,” said Jeri Hendricks, administrator for the WDH Office of Privacy, Security and Contracts.
IdentityForce provides advanced credit and dark web monitoring, along with identity theft insurance and medical identity theft coverage.
To take advantage of the offer, affected individuals can call the WDH information line for an IdentityForce verification code to allow online enrollment for the service.
“Because we are committed to the privacy and security of individuals’ protected health information, we have taken steps to help prevent further harm from this situation or similar circumstances from happening again,” Hendricks said. “Files have been removed from the GitHub repositories and GitHub has destroyed any dangling data from their servers. Business practices have been revised to include prohibiting the use of GitHub or other public repositories and employees have been retrained.”
Hendricks said appropriate corrective action has been taken and the WDH Office of Privacy, Security and Contract’s (OPSC) investigation of this incident is complete.