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U.S. Health Agency Forbids Sensitive Data On Apple MacBooks

Employees who store medical records on laptops must use systems that run either on Microsoft's Windows operating system or Linux.

In the wake of a widely publicized security breach that left thousands of patient records exposed, the federal government's National Institutes of Health is forbidding all employees who use Apple's MacBook laptops from handling sensitive data as of Friday, InformationWeek has learned.

Employees at the health agency who store medical records and other personal information on laptops must use systems that run either on Microsoft's Windows operating system or Linux, according to an agency memo.

Those systems must be equipped with Check Point Software's Pointsec encryption tool as of April 4, according to an NIH mandate. Systems running Windows Vista can also use Vista's built-in BitLocker disk encryption tool.

NIH imposed the no-MacBooks rule because there is no Apple-compatible version of Pointsec. To date, Check Point has only released a beta version of Pointsec for Macs that's not yet ready for government use.

"Computers that cannot be encrypted by Pointsec at this time (e.g., Macs) are waived from the encryption mandate, but only with the stipulation that they do not contain any PII or sensitive government information," the NIH Office of Research Services said in a memo to NIH staff. PII refers to personally identifiable information.

NIH said it's been given no estimate as to when a final version of Pointsec for Macs may become available. It was not immediately clear how many Apple MacBooks are in use at the NIH. It also wasn't clear whether the ban extends to the whole of the U.S. Department of Health And Human Services, of which NIH is a part.

An NIH spokesman did not immediately respond to an inquiry seeking more information.

The MacBook ban applies to in-house NIH workers and also to contractors employed by the agency to handle sensitive data, according to the memo.

NIH employees who use laptops that are permanently anchored to a desk or research equipment can ask for an exemption from the encryption mandate as long as they place a "Do Not Remove" sticker on their machines.

NIH's decision highlights one of the biggest challenges facing Apple as it seeks to make greater inroads against Microsoft in the business and government computing markets. Commercial software developers have little incentive to port business applications to the Mac because the platform holds only a tiny share of the business computing market.

NIH imposed the April 4 deadline in the wake of an embarrassing incident in February in which a laptop containing records on 2,500 patients enrolled in a medical study was stolen. The laptop was not encrypted, despite a 2-year-old federal policy that mandates encryption on government systems.

NIH did not disclose the type of laptop that was stolen. Apple officials were not immediately available for comment.

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