Lawsuit contends company and Pa. health department knew of contact tracing data breach for months – TribLIVE


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Officials in the company contracted to handle Pennsylvania’s covid-19 contact tracing efforts were aware in November of possible security breaches in their program and failed to take any action, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Harrisburg.

The complaint, filed by Lisa Chapman of New Kensington, seeks class-action status. It names as defendants the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Insight Global Inc., based in Atlanta.

Insight Global did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The health department contracted Insight last year to perform contact tracing with no competitive bidding process. The state has paid $29 million, and the contract expires in July, according to the lawsuit.

The state GOP has demanded that the contract be terminated over the data breach.

Last week, the health department acknowledged that information from 72,000 people was put at risk when employees at Insight used unauthorized Google accounts, which were viewable online, to store details gathered during contact tracing.

Insight apologized for what happened in an April 29 statement on its website.

“We deeply regret this happened and are committed to restoring the trust of any residents of Pennsylvania who may have been impacted,” it said. “All necessary steps are being taken to secure any personal information, and we intend to learn and grow from this.”

Health Department spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo said he could not comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit blamed the data breach on the defendants’ “failure to implement adequate and reasonable cybersecurity procedures and protocols necessary to protect consumers’ private health information.”

The compromised information included name, gender, phone number, sexual orientation, family size and health data, according to the lawsuit.

The proposed class for the lawsuit includes people who were either diagnosed with, or in close proximity to people diagnosed with, covid-19, who were then contacted by Insight on the health department’s behalf as a part of contract tracing.

The lawsuit alleges negligence and violations of the federal Health Insurance Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It accuses the defendants of failing to safeguard the potential plaintiffs’ personal information.

While the health department said that all contact tracing would remain private and confidential, the lawsuit said, Insight failed to secure its databases that contained the personal health information of tens of thousands of people.

“These documents were widely available to the public through a Google search and did not require a password, login, or any kind of authentication in order to be viewed,” the lawsuit said.

According to the complaint, Insight was aware its employees were using unsecure data storage as long ago as November.

In a Nov. 30 email attached to the complaint, a contact tracer emailed Insight’s operations manager, writing, “I did find a lot of areas that did raise a lot of concern.”

Then she listed “mishandling of (private health information,) privacy violations and employee information (very concerning!!).”

The health department learned of the problem, the complaint said, in February when a person from Insight wrote to a health department legal assistant.

In the Feb. 25 email, the former Insight employee wrote that they had resigned from the program because of “non-compliant behavior of the program with HIPAA and PII related data.

“Since IG made no attempt to correct my concerns (I found multiple issues and several exposures), I was unsure of what to do with the knowledge I had about their lack of security,” the person wrote in the email.

Still, the lawsuit said, neither Insight Global or the health department took action until April 21.

“Defendants failed to take appropriate or even the most basic steps to protect the (personal health information) of plaintiff and other class members from being disclosed,” it said.

Because of their failure, the complaint continued, their information is “now in the hands of the general public including thieves, unknown criminals, banks, credit companies, and other potentially hostile individuals.”

That means, the lawsuit said, that they face an increased risk of identity theft and will have to spend money and time to protect themselves from the data breach, including by monitoring medical statements and bills, as well as credit and financial accounts.

“Once (personal health information) is exposed, there is virtually no way to ensure that the exposed information has been fully recovered or contained against future misuse,” the lawsuit said.

Ciccocioppo said that health department officials were made aware of a potential issue in late February, which they immediately addressed with the vendor. He said Insight told the health department it had handled the situation in late December or early January.

“The department later learned that the remedy proved insufficient as documents created by vendor employees remained accessible via an unauthorized and insufficiently secured platform,” Ciccocioppo wrote in an email.

It wasn’t until April 19 that the department learned from WPXI that there had been a security breach, he said. Then, Ciccocioppa said, officials immediately took action.

Paula Reed Ward is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paula by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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