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9/8/2006
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Trust Matters To Cigna

Benefits provider toes that fine line between providing access to health information and protecting sensitive data.

When it comes to IT security, Cigna faces a clash of demands. Its customers--the companies to which Cigna provides employee health benefits services--and their employees want more online access to their benefits information, but that data is some of the most sensitive and heavily regulated information available. Cigna, like many companies in health care, is left searching for ways to provide data while ensuring that it's secure and in line with all privacy and other regulations.

Executive VP Scott Storrer realizes Cigna, which ranks 17th on this year's InformationWeek 500, needs to provide a continuous stream of new services to customers: Cigna's myCigna.com portal lets health care consumers do a side-by-side comparison of the quality and cost of local health care facilities. Last year, it developed a myCigna.com tool that compares the cost of prescription drugs at different pharmacies. But Storrer knows that only secure IT systems can deliver this sensitive information without risk of loss or theft. "We very much want to be seen as a trusted adviser rather than an HMO or gatekeeper," he says. "We can't do this if there are trust issues regarding customer data."

Information Security -- Illustration by Carl Weins

Illustration by Carl Weins
Cigna deals with this conundrum by taking the long view on potential problems. Data theft has been a huge problem this year for many companies, with several highly publicized thefts of laptops containing personal data. These crimes have embarrassed the businesses and government agencies involved and cost them millions of dollars to notify customers, answer questions, and pay for credit monitoring. Cigna is getting ahead of such problems by encrypting all of its portable data and sensitive backup files, an effort that's a lot easier to plan than it is to execute. "It's still an evolving technology," says chief information security officer Craig Shumard, a 25-year veteran of the company. "There's no easy way to roll out encryption."

The health benefits provider uses secure File Transfer Protocol when it exchanges large files with business partners. It also uses secure e-mail and Microsoft Encrypting File System on desktops and laptops. But workers don't rely just on PCs these days to do their work; increased use of removable media to transfer data challenges encryption efforts. Cigna addresses this in a number of ways, including the use of the WinZip Windows compression tool for CD encryption and technology from Verdasys that encrypts data sent to removable devices. The keys to decrypt data are stored on PCs and laptops into which USB devices plug in. "We don't want people storing data on machines that don't have our security controls," Shumard says.

The Hard Part

Microsoft Encrypting File System hasn't been foolproof. Retrieving decryption keys after a PC has been hit with a virus or is otherwise incapacitated can be difficult. Shumard is looking forward to a time when encryption and decryption are done automatically through logic coded into system hardware, without requiring admins to manage keys. Cigna is interested in the encryption capabilities to be featured in the upcoming Windows Vista operating system; the BitLocker Drive Encryption is supposed to encrypt and protect data on PCs and servers that have been lost or stolen, or whose hard drives weren't properly scrubbed before being decommissioned or resold. But having just finished its Windows XP deployment a year ago, a Vista migration won't make Cigna's to-do list for a few years.

Cigna has been using Zix's e-mail encryption services for four years to protect sensitive data--it processes 70 million benefits claims annually. E-mails that senders designate as "secure messages" in the cc: or bcc: field are sent through an encrypted tunnel to Zix's systems. A message then goes to the intended recipient, who must log on to Zix's system to retrieve the message. It's up to users to determine which e-mails to designate as secure and to follow company policies governing them.

Cigna uses Symantec's Sygate network access-control technology to ensure that any device connecting to its network has the right level of antivirus protection. Cigna also has segmented its network into a number of security zones, each of which requires access privileges to enter. In 2004, IBM Global Services helped Cigna design and develop the architecture, and Cisco last year began implementing it. The zone system limits roaming on the company's network.

Cigna upped its data security capabilities last year, while reducing expenses by 35% and trimming information security staff by 47%. This came largely through centralizing some functions within its Information Protection division and outsourcing others such as logon ID and password management to IBM Global Services.

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Among the changes: The Information Protection unit adopted a more centralized model and increased its interaction with the company's business units. Cigna created roles within its business units known as IP (Information Protection) champs and IP coordinators. Champs are senior-level business managers who agree to use their status in the company to bring security matters to the attention of Cigna's top executives. "We talk to senior managers to make sure we're working on the issues that are on their radar screens," Shumard says. "We take their concerns and factor them into our overall risk assessment that's used to create a security road map."

IP coordinators are business and IT managers, such as a claims manager in a branch office, who act as the eyes and ears within their business units to report security problems and concerns.

Cigna hopes this chain-of-command, communication-oriented approach will keep people alert to problems. Such an approach could have helped prevent the theft of a Veterans Affairs Department laptop containing 26.5 million records from an employee's home and the confusion that followed. The employee whose laptop was stolen and later recovered had been taking sensitive data home for years, but the VA didn't have a clear policy regarding the removal of sensitive data from its offices, so no one did anything about it. In another lapse of communication that a chain-of-command approach might have prevented, VA Secretary James Nicholson says he wasn't told of the theft until weeks after it happened.

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