FERPA vs. HIPAA: Understanding the Key Differences
Various federal laws exist to protect the privacy of individuals and their personally identifiable information (PII). Two of the most well-known of these laws are FERPA and HIPAA. Failure to comply with either of these laws can result in severe penalties, but what must be done to be in compliance and what kinds of organizations are required to abide by these regulations? Here’s what you need to know about FERPA, HIPAA, and the key differences between the two.
What is FERPA?
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law originally enacted in 1974 to protect the privacy of student educational records, such as grades, transcripts, and discipline files. The law covers any form the record may take, including, but not limited to, written information, recorded audio and video, and digital records.
This law gives parents or other legal guardians the right to access their children’s records, seek amendments to the records, and provides some control over the disclosure of information contained in the records. Once the student reaches the age of 18 or enters a postsecondary institution, these rights transfer to the student.
Who must comply with FERPA?
All public and private schools that receive federal funding from programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education are required to comply with FERPA guidelines. This includes elementary schools, secondary schools, and post-secondary institutions. Additionally, all state and local education agencies must also comply with FERPA.
What information is protected by FERPA?
FERPA protects the privacy of records directly related to a student that are controlled by an educational institution or by a party acting on behalf of the institution. While these records may be extensive, there are also records exempted from FERPA, including certain law enforcement records, health records, and attendance records.
What information can be shared without authorization under FERPA?
Some information can be shared without authorization in compliance with FERPA guidelines. Permitted disclosures include:
- School officials with a legitimate educational interest
- Outside educational institutions to which a student is transferring
- Individuals performing specified audits or evaluations
- Parties involved in connecting students with financial aid
- Organizations conducting studies for or on behalf of the institution
- Accrediting institutions
- Compliance with a judicial order or subpoena
- Health and safety officials in the event of an emergency
- State and local authorities within the juvenile justice system in accordance with state laws
What is HIPAA?
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was signed into law in 1996 and covers a broad range of topics related to health care. Though the law was originally enacted to ensure United States citizens would not lose health insurance coverage in the event of a job change, the scope of the law has grown to include many additional areas of health, including data privacy.
Today, HIPAA covers patient data privacy rights and provides strict security guidelines for certain organizations to follow. While HIPAA is most commonly associated with healthcare facilities like hospitals and clinics, additional related businesses such as IT firms, law offices, and billing companies are also required to follow HIPAA compliance guidelines.
Who must comply with HIPAA?
All healthcare organizations and businesses that electronically transmit health information must abide by HIPAA regulations. This includes businesses and individuals who act on behalf of covered parties, including those who process health data for reasons such as analysis, review, and billing.
What information is protected by HIPAA?
HIPAA covers protected health information (PHI) that is stored or transmitted in any way. This includes information like medical records, biometric information, and details related to health plans. The law covers information held or processed digitally, in physical media, or through verbal communication.
What information can be shared without authorization under HIPAA?
Under HIPAA guidelines, limited pieces of information can be shared with various parties without authorization. Permitted disclosures include:
- Discussing information with the patient
- Information required to perform treatment, payment, and other healthcare operations
- Public interest or safety concerns like abuse, neglect, or other threats to health and safety
- Research, public health, or healthcare operations as part of a limited dataset
FERPA vs. HIPAA: Key similarities and differences
While both of these compliance laws address privacy and security concerns, there are important differences to keep in mind, as well. Namely, what parties are covered by each of the laws and whose information is explicitly protected by the laws.
Primary similarities between FERPA and HIPAA
FERPA and HIPAA both protect personal information from being accessed by or disclosed to unauthorized parties. Additionally, while FERPA and HIPAA are both federal laws, various state privacy laws may also factor into the interpretation of these laws and the ways they intersect.
Generally, state laws concerning privacy are written with more detailed guidelines than either FERPA or HIPAA. When conflicts between state and federal privacy laws exist, the stricter regulations should be given precedence.
Key differences between FERPA and HIPAA
FERPA and HIPAA both address data privacy, but the scope of each law varies in some significant ways. In the simplest terms, HIPAA primarily covers the healthcare industry, while FERPA applies to education and related areas.
However, there are some areas of overlap, such as student medical records. In these cases, FERPA only applies to the release of student medical records, and HIPAA does not apply to records covered by FERPA. Additionally, FERPA laws will never apply to non-students of educational institutions covered by FERPA regulations. It’s also important to note that, while some educational institutions may treat non-students on campus in health or counseling centers, these entities are not subject to HIPAA unless healthcare information is transmitted.
How to proactively protect data and stay in compliance
At first glance, it may seem difficult to ensure proper data management practices in order to stay in compliance with regulations like FERPA and HIPAA. Fortunately, by taking a data-centric approach to privacy and security, it’s possible to protect data at all stages of the data lifecycle. More importantly, protecting data is crucial for establishing and maintaining trust with students, patients, or any other other parties that rely on your organization for proper handling of their sensitive information.
Start with a data-centric approach to security
A data-centric approach to security puts the focus of your organization’s data security on the data itself rather than hardware or software protocols. This approach reduces vulnerabilities by protecting data wherever it resides rather than requiring data to be resecured at every new endpoint. At the same time, data can be protected throughout its existence rather than within a single application or set of applications.
Employ a Zero Trust security framework
A Zero Trust security framework requires users’ identities to be verified every time they attempt to access sensitive data. Along with a data-centric approach to security, this framework further secures data at its source. The roadmap for implementing a Zero Trust model is straightforward and covers five key topics:
- Identity—the guidelines for granting user permissions
- Device—all hardware connected to the network
- Network—all architecture involved in data transmission
- Application Workload—all programs and executables
- Data—information stored, in motion, or in-use
Create an effective data loss prevention (DLP) strategy
Data loss prevention processes include the programs and policies designed to keep sensitive data from falling into the hands of unauthorized parties. DLP is not a single piece of software, but rather a component of a larger security strategy. Unfortunately, many organizations lack effective DLP strategies, resulting in increased risk of threats such as data breaches.
Software solutions for sensitive data security
The best way to protect data and remain in compliance with FERPA, HIPAA, and other regulations is with a comprehensive solution designed to fulfill the following needs:
- Find data wherever it lives
- Classify data into relevant categories
- Remediate data as necessary for proper data hygiene
- Monitor data for rapid response to suspicious events
- Report findings in an accurate and actionable manner
The Spirion Governance Suite fulfills these requirements and protects data with 98.5% accuracy, offers real-time monitoring and analytics, and features comprehensive integration with existing technology stacks. For more information, see the product in action or contact us with any questions you may have. We also invite you to review a case study of how one health organization manages PHI in complex networks with Spirion’s assistance.