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Feds working to uncover full scope of court system data breach

A U.S. security official spoke briefly to a congressional committee on the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into the PACER system breach, acknowledging the hack is a “significant concern.”

WASHINGTON (CN) — A congressional oversight committee pressed one of the nation’s leading security advisers Thursday for an update into a security breach of the federal court digital document system dating back to early 2020.

Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, noted that while the Justice Department released a memo identifying the breach in January 2021, it was only in March that the committee first learned “the startling breadth and scope of the courts’ document management system security failure.”

According to the January memo, the federal judiciary’s system known as PACER CM/ECF – short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records and Case Management/Electronic Case Files – suffered a compromise during the massive U.S. cybersecurity breach in 2020 that targeted SolarWinds Orion products, as the software had utilized the Orion IT tool before the breach.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts vowed in January that it would be working with the Department of Homeland Security on a security audit to identify PACER vulnerabilities “that greatly risk compromising highly sensitive non-public documents stored on CM/ECF, particularly sealed filings.”

“Perhaps even more concerning is the disturbing impact of security breach and on pending civil and criminal litigation,” Nadler said Thursday, “as well as an ongoing national security or intelligence matters.”

Noting the unclassified forum, the chairman asked Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's National Security Division, what types of cases or investigations of the U.S. attorney's offices were impacted most by the breach and how many of the cases were within his division.

Olsen skirted around the answer.

“I can't speak directly to the nature of the ongoing investigation of the types of threats that you've mentioned regarding the effort to compromise public judicial dockets. This is of course a significant concern for us, given the nature of the information that is often held by the courts,” Olsen testified before the committee. 

He added that his division is focused on attacks waged by other nation states, citing China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as examples.

“The threat we face from cyber-enabled attacks — whether that's to the government and public sector, including Congress, or to the private sector — is one of the most significant threats we face as a country to our national security,” Olsen said.

Responding to Nadler’s questioning, he testified that no investigations he could think of within his division had been “materially impacted, prolonged or dismissed” because of the court system breach.

Olsen told Nadler that the department and NSC are continuing to audit their systems to ensure they are not compromised by the same hostile foreign actors who attacked PACER.

“When it comes to the sophisticated nation-state type activity that we see in cyber, the challenge is significant and it's very difficult to ever be in a position to say that any system is 100% safe when it comes to sophisticated nation-states that seek to obtain persistent access to these systems,” Olsen explained. 

In an attempt to keep confidential records safe, the Justice Department announced in January that “highly sensitive court documents” filed at federal courts should now be submitted on paper or via thumb drive or CD, to ensure secure storage. 

“These sealed HSDs will not be uploaded to CM/ECF,” the department noted, adding each court would determine for itself what is highly sensitive. “This new practice will not change current policies regarding public access to court records, since sealed records are confidential and currently are not available to the public.”

Olsen promised Thursday to keep Congress updated on the investigation. 

“We stand ready to come to Congress to talk about it at any time,” he said.

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