Ride the Lightning

Cybersecurity and Future of Law Practice Blog
by Sharon D. Nelson Esq., President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc.

Justice Department Investigating Data Breach of Federal Court System

August 2, 2022

Politico reported on July 28 that the Justice Department is investigating a data breach of the U.S. federal courts system dating to early 2020.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told his colleagues that “three hostile foreign actors” attacked the U.S. Courts’ document filing system as part of a breach in early 2020 causing a “system security failure.” The comments, at a committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, were the first public disclosure of the hack.

Nadler said the committee learned in March about the “startling breadth and scope” of the breach, which was separate from the SolarWinds hack revealed in late 2020. SolarWinds involved Russian government-backed hackers infiltrating the networks of over a dozen U.S. federal agencies for much of 2020, including the federal courts systems.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen testified to the committee that NSD is “working very closely with the judicial conference and judges around the country to address this issue,” and committed to updating the committee on the investigation as it progressed.

A committee aide stated that Nadler’s questions came after the committee received a briefing on the attack, noting that “the sweeping impact it may have had on the operation of the Department of Justice is staggering.” The aide was granted anonymity in order to discuss a private briefing.

Committee member Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) pressed Olsen for more details on how many cases had been impacted by the breach, saying, “I would expect your preparation and for us to be able to get that information as quickly as possible in a setting that would be appropriate, but this is a dangerous set of circumstances that has now been publicly announced, and we need to know how many…were dismissed.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee (and one of my favorite lawmakers), sent a letter to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts expressing “serious concerns that the federal judiciary has hidden” the consequences of the data breach from Congress and the public.

“The federal judiciary has yet to publicly explain what happened and has refused multiple requests to provide unclassified briefings to Congress,” Wyden wrote.

In response, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts noted that it had published a statement in January 2021 acknowledging that its Case Management/Electronic Case Files system, or CM/ECF, had been compromised as part of the massive breach. Procedures for filing highly sensitive documents were changed so that they could only be handed in via paper documents, a secure electronic device or through a secure computer system.

David Sellers, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, pointed to the January 2021 statement in noting that “the Judiciary faces a significant threat to our electronic case management system.” Sellers said that U.S. Courts had taken steps since then to protect its networks, including through working with the Department of Homeland Security to address vulnerabilities, and establishing the Judiciary IT Security Task Force to make recommendations for ways to strengthen security further.

I echo the concerns of Senator Wyden – it is way past time for the federal judiciary to provide unclassified briefings to Congress.

Sharon D. Nelson, Esq., PresidentSensei Enterprises, Inc.
3975 University Drive, Suite 225Fairfax, VA 22030
Email:   Phone: 703-359-0700
Digital Forensics/Cybersecurity/Information Technology