More than six million Americans have been affected by security breaches of their protected electronic health information since August 2009, according to a recent report. Sixty-one percent of the breaches are a result of "malicious intent."

Redspin, a Carpinteria, Calif.-based company that provides IT security assessment services, analyzed 225 disclosed security breaches that affect 500 individuals or more. The problem is widespread, according to the study, and has been reported in 43 states.

The 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act requires insurance providers to report security breaches to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The HHS then publicly discloses these breaches.

The Redspin report analyzed breaches reported to the HHS to determine areas that can be targeted for future policy. On average, 27,000 individuals are affected in each breach, the report said.

The security breaches generally occur in one of two ways, according to Brian Hayes, chief technical officer at Redspin and one of the authors of the report. In one scenario, information is misplaced or lost, either in the form of paper or portable media devices.

The scenario of concern, however, is when information is stolen.

"Sixty percent of the time the breach is mapped back to someone actually trying to steal," Hayes said. "You're talking about thousands of records at a time with people's names, addresses and social security numbers."

This information is a stepping-stone for a wide range of illegal activity such as identity theft, and Medicare and Medicaid fraud. The overall cost of security breaches in health information is difficult to estimate. However, identity theft alone can drain millions of dollars. According to the 2011 Identity Fraud Survey Report, 8.1 million Americans were affected by identity theft last year, and paid nearly $500 million in out-of-pocket costs.

"There are a lot of different ways that someone can use this information for financial incentive[s]," said Hayes. "What we were hoping to accomplish with the study is identify where the breaches are happening so that you can protect yourself from it before it even happens."

Nearly 65 percent of all incidents involved the theft or loss of a laptop or other portable media device. The report found that these types of incidents have the highest collateral damage, and affect 66,000 individuals on average.

one such incident, over 1 million patients in Tennessee were victims of a security breach. Hard drives containing confidential information were stolen from the Eastgate offices of BlueCross BlueShield, an incident that has already cost the insurance provider $7 million in the early stages of its investigation and damage control.

Hayes predicts that these numbers will only increase in coming years.

"There's a constant number of breaches being reported every month," said Hayes. "And I don't see that number going down in the future."

In the report, Redspin offers broad policy recommendations to prevent future security breaches, including a security system plan, incident detection and reporting programs, and improved protection for portable media.

However, the picture is still incomplete. The Breach Notification Rule of the HITECH Act went into effect August 2009, so the report is only an early snapshot of the problem.

Although Hayes said that the initial numbers are surprising, the real interest is whether there will be any improvements in security in the coming months. "We are going to be watching the breaches occurring in 2011, and we'll put together a similar report next year," said Hayes.