Handling "Hot" Health Data without Getting Burned

Michael Shoffner (UNC/RENCI)
Location: Plaza Room A Level: Non-technical

Medical records and other private healthcare data represent a potential treasure trove of insights for medical and public healthcare researchers. Unfortunately, these data are largely off-limits: the risk of leaking data that could compromise someone’s privacy is simply too great. But what if “hot” health data could be handled safely and securely? The knowledge we could derive from this wealth of data could have a major impact on medical science and healthcare.

Partners at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) have developed a solution architecture called Secure Virtual Research Workspace (SVRW) that de-risks using these sensitive data. SVRW is the virtual version of a “hot cell”—a shielded room for working with radioactive material. Like a hot cell, it provides a safe environment for working with material that would be harmful if it escaped—sensitive healthcare data in raw form.

SVRW combines network and host based countermeasures, virtualization technology, policy control mechanisms, and data leakage protection. The framework enforces granular access policies and provides auditing functions. Although some components are commercial, the solution architecture itself is free and open for use by the community at large.

SVRW has the potential to make researchers’ jobs less risky, lower institutional liability, and enable new discoveries across both the public and private sectors. This session will present the security issues, the architecture of the solution, and a practical discussion on how attendees can apply SVRW in their own organizations.

Photo of Michael Shoffner

Michael Shoffner


Michael Shoffner is a Senior Research Software Architect in the Data Sciences Group at RENCI, a UNC-based research institute that develops and deploys advanced technologies to enable research discoveries, and an adjunct faculty member in the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS). Previously he has been a technical architect, a member of an emerging technologies strategy group, and co-founder of an early area Internet technology consultancy with clients in the biomedical and education spaces. He co-authored one of the first trade books on the Java programming language and spearheaded the world’s first online radio station simulcast.


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