Compliance and Confidentiality with Microsoft 365’s Copilot

Compliance and Confidentiality with Copilot

In industries like healthcare and finance, compliance and a general adherence to regulatory standards are always of critical importance.

HIPAA, for example, was put into law to protect the privacy of individuals in a healthcare environment.

It does this while trying to maintain a delicate balance that also allows medical providers and other organizations to continue to implement new technologies that improve both the quality and efficiency of the services they offer.

In the finance world, the GLBA exists for similar reasons.

Under it, financial institutions need to disclose both how they share and protect the private information of their customers.

In essence, it's a way to prevent not only massive fines but also the irreparable reputational damage that might come from allowing this data to fall into the wrong hands.

The overarching issue with this is that technology has historically evolved faster than legislation ever could.

Consider the fact that ChatGPT, which most people now see as the face of artificial intelligence, only became available to the public less than two years ago.

To put that into perspective, HIPAA was lasted updated in 2020.

All this is to say that maintaining compliance and confidentiality in an AI-powered world was always going to be a challenge - and it's about to become exponentially more so thanks to Microsoft 365's Copilot.

Copilot is built into the Microsoft tools many of us already use like Word, Excel, and more.

This means, among other things, that it has access to the data created, stored, and shared within those tools - like patient health or consumer financial data.

What does this mean in terms of long-term compliance?

What steps can you take to make sure that your business remains protected, regardless of how fast things continue to change around us?

The answers to questions like those require you to keep a few key things in mind.

Compliance Challenges for Healthcare and Finance with Copilot

Security, privacy, and compliance are challenges that come part and parcel with the use of an AI tool like Copilot.

Remember that with generative AI, you're talking about a system that gets better as more data is fed into.

Copilot becomes more efficient and more intelligent as it ingests more data to "train" on.

Because of that, you need to guarantee that the data used during that training adheres to any privacy regulations that your organization is ultimately subject to, like HIPAA or the GDPR.

Failing to maintain compliance, even at this stage, could still see an organization subject to major fines and other consequences - not to mention the type of reputational damage it might not be able to recover from.

In Copilot's case, Microsoft has been clear that the system was built from inception to prioritize security.

In addition to industry leading encryption protocols, it also leverages secure data storage practices and access controls to help eliminate the unauthorized access of data.

Privacy isn't an afterthought when it comes to Copilot.

From the way data is collected to the way its models are trained to the ultimate deployment of the solution all follow a "Privacy by Design" model.

Having said that, Copilot is still just a tool - the same as anything else.

It's very possible to use a tool incorrectly, and in this case one of the consequences of "getting it wrong" is the potential destruction of any trust built up between a healthcare organization and its patients or a financial business and its customers.

In other words, AI tools like Copilot are so powerful that even though they're built with compliance in mind, it's still possible to use them in a non-compliant way because their potential and malleability is so great.

At an organizational level, you need to be exceedingly careful about how Copilot is used in conjunction with protected data.

How Copilot Adheres to Regulatory Standards

Microsoft has displayed its commitment to compliance and data protection with regard to AI, in part, through Copilot Studio.

It is compliant with or covered by not only HIPAA, but also other standards like the Common Security Framework (CSF), System and Organization Controls (SOC), The Cloud Security Alliance (CSA), and the United Kingdom Government Cloud (G-Cloud), among others.

In terms of HIPAA, this means that users can create copilots that specifically handle protected health information.

A doctor at a private practice could use Copilot to get a patient to provide their blood pressure, weight, or other sensitive health information ahead of an upcoming appointment, for example.

They would do this with a HIPAA-compliant copilot as opposed to the more general solution.

In a general sense, it's important to note that data created and shared through Microsoft Copilot is protected via the same security mechanisms and policies as the larger Microsoft 365 environment.

Because Microsoft 365 itself is compliant with HIPAA, GLBA, and other regulations, by extension Copilot is as well.

Microsoft has also been clear that the artificial intelligence that powers Copilot is designed to fully respect any organizational policies that you've put in place.

If your existing access control and security policies were put in place to adhere to your ethical standards, Copilot will as well.

This is obviously also true of any compliance requirements that you may have.

Ensuring Data Confidentiality with AI

Thankfully, Microsoft 365 and Copilot have a number of tools built into them that help protect not only the data being created and shared among users, but the general privacy of people as well.

Copilot encrypts all data both at rest and in transit, for example, using industry-standard encryption protocols.

This means that even if patient health records or customer financial data is sitting on a hard drive somewhere not being used, it is still fully encrypted and can't be accessed by anyone that doesn't have express permission to do so.

In transit encryption is particularly important, as so much of Microsoft 365 is cloud-based, which means personally identifying data is constantly moving back and forth between local and cloud-based servers. 

Copilot also introduces a number of sophisticated features as they pertain to access controls.

Even though Copilot can be natively integrated with tools like Microsoft Graph, you can always choose which data sources are enabled or disabled at a given time.

You can control exactly which users have access to Copilot itself through the Microsoft 365 Admin Center.

Therefore, nobody would be able to use Copilot as a "workaround" to access data from another app that they shouldn't be able to see.

In this example, someone wouldn't be able to tell Copilot to pull up a patient record from another application when they realized they couldn't use that application directly.

Tips for Maintaining Compliance While Using AI

By far, one of the most important compliance AI tools your organization should be leaning on has to do with regular compliance audits whenever possible.

At a bare minimum, an audit should be performed once a year.

Ideally, you'd have the time and the resources to conduct two or more.

Audits in this context are important for a few different reasons.

For starters, you can't protect against something if you're not aware it exists at all.

If a gap exists in your security posture, you can't afford to wait for it to be exploited to then address it.

You need to be proactive about filling it now before someone with malicious intentions takes the opportunity to exploit it later.

Secondly, compliance audits help to make sure your compliance with things like HIPAA hasn't lapsed.

It is entirely possible to change the configuration of something like Microsoft 365 to lose the compliance you once had.

This is especially true if things like user permissions or other access control-related settings are adjusted, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Remember that even accidental HIPAA violations come with hefty fines.

But perhaps most importantly, regular compliance audits help make sure you're up-to-date with what your tools are capable of that they may not have been six months ago.

Again, consider how fast artificial intelligence is evolving and apply that to Microsoft 365 Copilot.

By its nature, AI gets more effective as time goes on.

It's entirely possible that in six months from now, Copilot will be used in ways we literally haven't conceived of today.

You need to work to stay ahead of the potential compliance consequences of that and audits will be a big part of how you do it.

Along the same lines, another tip for maintaining compliance while using AI has to do with creating training and awareness programs for your staff. Experts have long agreed that most cyber attacks are inside jobs - but not in the way that many assume.

In the majority of situations, you're talking about someone falling victim to a phishing scam who simply didn't know what a phishing email looked like.

Or they left their phone behind in a taxi that was logged into the business network.

Especially in a healthcare or financial services world with AI at the heart of it, your employees need to understand what the stakes are and how to avoid falling into the types of traps that are all too common.

The more information you arm your employees with, the better they'll be able to protect themselves (and your business) from the modern day threats they're likely to face once AI is a ubiquitous part of our lives.

In the End

During a time when the Microsoft 365 suite has over 345 million paid members alone as of 2023, it's easy to see why the tech giant's investment in Copilot is such a big deal.

It's one thing to ask people to see artificial intelligence as a viable alternative that they need to find a way to add to the processes they're currently comfortable with.

It's another thing entirely to bake it into the DNA of a solution they've already been happily using for years.

The latter idea is why AI companions are about to take a major leap forward in terms of availability if nothing else - but with that must come caution.

A variety of industries rely on Microsoft 365 in a professional capacity, and sectors like healthcare and finance are at the top of that list.

That's why you cannot just assume that Copilot (or any other AI tool you might be using) is automatically compliant with regulatory standards like HIPAA, GLBA, and others.

Buying into these tools without knowing exactly what types of risks you're exposed to is a recipe for disaster.

HIPAA violations alone could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and up to a decade of imprisonment - artificial intelligence doesn't change that.

Always perform regular compliance audits in the healthcare and finance sectors.

Always make it a priority to train staff and create awareness programs as conditions change.

Technology like AI moves fast, and you need to be prepared to move just as quickly.

If you'd like to find out more information about the importance of compliance and confidentiality with Microsoft 365's AI assistant Copilot, or if you're eager to talk to someone about your organization's own needs in a bit more detail, please don't delay - contact us today.

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