On Friday January 24, 2014, attorneys trying to access the federal courts' electronic records and filing systems were unable to get through for almost four hours. While occasional local outages for maintenance or technical problems are not unknown, there is some reason to believe that the PACER and ECF systems for the entire federal court system were taken down by hackers. This raises questions of who was behind the hack and why they targeted the federal court system.
Here is what I have been able to piece together. At approximately 2:45 p.m. CST, I attempted to access both the Western District of Texas and Southern District of Texas Bankruptcy PACER sites to look up some filings. I received a message stating that the website was not available and to check whether I had spelled it right. After multiple tries, I was not able to get through.
At 2:54 p.m. CST, I received an email from the Northern District of Georgia Bankruptcy Court stating:
Initial reports are indicating that a Hacker group is impacting PACER access for all U. S. Courts. Another email will be sent when full access has been restored.
At 3:33 p.m. CST, I received an email from the Western District of Texas Bankruptcy Court stating:
The Case Management / Electronic Case Files System and the court website for the U. S. Bankruptcy Court of the Western District of Texas is currently UNAVAILABLE due to a network problem at the national level. The problem is being worked on. You will be notified when it is once again available.
We apologize for the inconvenience.
As the afternoon wore on, various other reports came in. However, other than the initial report from the Northern District of Georgia, none mentioned the specter of hacking.
At 6:34 p.m. CST, I received a notification of a filing by another attorney. Thus, it looks like the system was down from approximately 2:45 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. CST, an outage of nearly four hours.
As of this morning, the website for the U.S. Courts did not have any explanation for the outage, although it did feature a story entitled "Working Group Seeks Ways to Pull Plug on Cybercrime."
Back in 2009, Wire.com reported that hackers had engineered a way to go around PACER's pay wall and get documents without payment. However, I was not able to find any reliable reports of prior hacking attacks on both PACER and ECF.
Having been mildly inconvenienced and perturbed by this possible hacking incident, I am curious at to whether we will learn more about what happened. Who was behind this? What was their motive? Was this done by someone with a grudge against the court system or was it simply a case of teens with too much time on their hands?
From what I can surmise, this was simply a denial of service attack and not an attempt to access and manipulate PACER or ECF data. However, this should be a warning to the administrative office of the courts that someone could attempt a more audacious attack in the future. That would be bad.
To the person or persons who did this, with apologies to Pink Floyd:
We don't need no electronic frustrationWe don't need no nasty trollNo dark sarcasm on the internetHey hackers, leave CM/ECF alone!