Russian hack brings changes, uncertainty to US court system

FILE - This Nov. 4, 2020, file photo shows the Supreme Court in Washington, with the Capitol in the distance. Legal experts raised alarm when U.S. court officials confirmed that their electronic case files had been compromised as part of a sweeping attack on U.S. computer networks. Russian hackers seemingly gained access to a vast trove of private information hidden in sealed files, and that could include trade secrets, espionage targets, whistleblower reports and arrest warrants. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - This Nov. 4, 2020, file photo shows the Supreme Court in Washington, with the Capitol in the distance. Legal experts raised alarm when U.S. court officials confirmed that their electronic case files had been compromised as part of a sweeping attack on U.S. computer networks. Russian hackers seemingly gained access to a vast trove of private information hidden in sealed files, and that could include trade secrets, espionage targets, whistleblower reports and arrest warrants. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

PHILADELPHIA – Trial lawyer Robert Fisher is handling one of America’s most prominent counterintelligence cases, defending an MIT scientist charged with secretly helping China. But how he’ll handle the logistics of the case could feel old school: Under new court rules, he’ll have to print out any highly sensitive documents and hand-deliver them to the courthouse.

Until recently, even the most secretive material — about wiretaps, witnesses and national security concerns – could be filed electronically. But that changed after the massive Russian hacking campaign that breached the U.S. court system’s electronic case files and those of scores of other federal agencies and private companies.

The new rules for filing sensitive documents are one of the clearest ways the hack has affected the court system. But the full impact remains unknown. Hackers probably gained access to the vast trove of confidential information hidden in sealed documents, including trade secrets, espionage targets, whistleblower reports and arrest warrants. It could take years to learn what information was obtained and what hackers are doing with it.

It's also not clear that the intrusion has been stopped, prompting the rules on paper filings. Those documents are now uploaded to a stand-alone computer at the courthouse — one not connected to the network or Internet. That means lawyers cannot access the documents from outside the courthouse.

Fisher is defending Gang Chen, a nanotechnology researcher fighting charges that he defrauded the U.S.

“It would be cumbersome if we do have to start filing pleadings during the litigation on paper. That’s going to be more difficult,” Fisher said. “Particularly during COVID. Most of us are working from home.”

The Russian intrusion through the SolarWinds software has President Joe Biden in an early tussle with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, and U.S. senators are worried about the “grave risk” to U.S. intelligence.

The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts confirmed the court system breach on Jan. 6, joining a victims' list that includes the State Department, the National Institutes of Health, tech companies and an unknown number of Fortune 500 companies. U.S. officials have linked the effort, which went on for much of 2020, to elite Russia hackers.