How Office 365 and Microsoft Azure Comply with Industry Regulations Like HIPAA and PCI

 In Cybersecurity News

Companies that operate in certain industries are tasked with more than the usual responsibilities of running a business; in some cases, a business must, by law, adhere to government standards that affect how the business does its work. For companies that must comply with such standards as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) or PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard), cloud computing may add an uncertain dimension to their adherence.

Business leaders have a right to be concerned about how well their company complies with these standards – the penalties for breaking them could be fatal for their business and personal lives. HIPAA violations, for example, incur civil penalties ranging from a mere $100 per violation to criminal penalties of $250,000 and 10 years of imprisonment. So, when a business factors cloud computing into its workflow, it has to be very careful in how the infrastructure adheres to the guidelines set by whatever industry standards they must meet. This is especially true given recent headlines of major companies suffering data breaches and ransomware attacks.

Microsoft: The Leader in Cloud Computing Compliance

While all the major cloud service providers boast some forms of code compliance, Microsoft’s compliance efforts are perhaps the most comprehensive. By its own account, Microsoft “offers the most comprehensive set of certifications and attestations of any cloud service provider,” which, besides HIPAA and PCI, includes FERPA, CJIS, and other U.S. and international standards. Office 365 and Azure, two of Microsoft’s most popular cloud services, naturally strive to uphold compliance regulations.

To be clear, simply using Office 365 and Microsoft Azure isn’t a “magic bullet” for adhering to industry standards. For instance, HIPAA regulations state that companies dealing with certain data must sign a business agreement with any third party (e.g. Microsoft) they wish to share that data with. Microsoft is very clear in its business agreement contracts that, while it will do its part to protect its users’ data, the business itself is responsible for making sure their data is compliant in the first place. That said, a business could do worse than using Microsoft’s cloud services (which are perhaps the best in the industry) as tools to help comply to regulations.

Microsoft’s Security Measures

Microsoft deserves much credit for ensuring its customers’ data is always secure. From the most basic level of physical data security to the most layered DDoS and brute force attacks, Microsoft employs cyber security experts to monitor customer data on a 24/7 basis. Further, these teams routinely practice real-world data breaches in order to test and improve the cloud services.

Unfortunately, attempts at data breach still occur, so Microsoft has a five-phase plan to respond to incidents: identification, containment, eradication, recovery, and lessons learned. The process, Microsoft says, ensures “the appropriate mitigations are applied to protect against future recurrence.” Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure and the methods it uses to protect user data often exceed those of what small and midsize businesses are capable of. SMBs that run their services on out-of-date infrastructure are at a greater threat for attack by hackers who exploit vulnerabilities, putting customer data at risk. Simply put, SMBs could be less at risk of breaking compliance by putting their trust in Microsoft’s cloud services.

Investing in Compliance

Of course, as compliance regulations change, Microsoft updates its services accordingly. Updates aren’t limited to staying code compliant, though; Microsoft regularly makes improvements to its services so that its users have better control over their data, including enhancements in email encryption and improved APIs.  This makes data management more transparent and straightforward. More tools give businesses more ways of staying on top of their compliance requirements.

Microsoft’s commitment to improving compliance also comes in the form on new, customer-facing features, such as the Customer Lockbox for Office 365. While most cloud processes are automated, there are rare occurrences in which a Microsoft technician needs access to customer data. Customer Lockbox gives the user final access control approval over the data, and any actions taken are logged for future auditing purposes.

Using Office 365 to Meet Compliance Regulations

For many end users, the Office 365 suite of products will end at its most popular applications, which include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Many workers who use this software have no need to adhere to regulatory standards. However, because there are many cases in which workers will handling sensitive data in these programs, administrators can institute additional compliance features.

Workers can use Office 365 products to comply with requirements including information rights management, data loss prevention, electronic discovery, records management, and more. It should be noted that administrators might need to make some settings changes to enable these features, but in some cases, it’s as easy as clicking a checkbox. More information about these tools can be found on the Office 365 support page.

Resources for Business Leaders

There’s no question that regulatory requirements are most often in-depth, complex, and tough to grasp. Agreements with third-party cloud services complicate these requirements, and it’s not unusual for a business to have a legal team dedicated to staying on top of compliance necessities.

The intricacies and ramifications of compliance aren’t lost on Microsoft. As such, the company has multiple resources for code-compliant businesses using Microsoft products, such as the Microsoft Trust Center, a hub for all things related to security and compliance. Further, the Microsoft Azure Trust Center and Office 365 Security & Compliance Center collect more specific compliance information regarding their respective cloud platforms.

Compliance isn’t to be taken lightly, and for the benefit of businesses (and their customers’ data), Microsoft makes compliance a large focus in their cloud security measures. Regardless of a company’s cloud and regulatory needs, it’s important that its leaders understand the extent to which they must comply and how utilizing the Microsoft cloud impacts that compliance.

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