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Information Systems and Cybersecurity – Annual Report 2020

The Judiciary is committed to maintaining secure, robust, and flexible technology systems that meet the changing needs of judges, court staff, and the public.

Technology Upgrades in Response to Pandemic

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom

Judge Beth Bloom, of the Southern District of Florida, conducts a distance-learning program as part of the district’s educational outreach efforts.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) bolstered the Judiciary’s information technology (IT) infrastructure to meet the greatly increased demand during the pandemic as employees across the system switched to telework and courts relied on audio streaming and teleconferencing to keep court proceedings moving forward. Internet access capacity was doubled and, during the peak of COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders nationwide, the number of users simultaneously connecting with the Judiciary’s virtual private network (VPN) services jumped by 780 percent. The AO procured additional licenses to support VPN access and to increase videoconferencing and teleconferencing capacity. The AO also provided research and guidance about the video and teleconferencing tools that best met the courts’ needs.

The collaboration capabilities of Office 365 ProPlus facilitated the Judiciary’s shift to telework during the crisis. Between March and May, email use rose by more than 25 percent, OneDrive activity by 28 percent, and SharePoint usage by more than 130 percent. Also, to accommodate increased telework, the AO accelerated the planned rollout of Microsoft Teams to replace Skype for Business.

SharePoint Online Adopted by Judiciary

The Judiciary recently completed a multi-year program to upgrade its email and collaboration tools by deploying the suite of Microsoft Office 365 products, including SharePoint Online (SPO). The cloud-based tool allows courts to share and manage information and seamlessly collaborate across the organization. Content can be accessed with a standard web browser, and because it is hosted in the cloud, it can be accessed anywhere, on any device, at any time.

SPO was deployed in three-month waves across the courts during 2020. By the end of December, 251 out of a total 310 court units had begun implementing the tool. The AO is working with court units that are adopting SPO to identify and share Judiciary solutions, such as federal government car reservation, intranet sites, and chambers library.

Improving Data Quality with E-Learning

To improve caseload statistical reporting, the AO released four new electronic learning modules. The modules include step-by-step instructions to resolve the most common civil and criminal data error codes and best practices for retransmitting statistical data to the AO. The modules were developed in collaboration with the District Caseload Data Working Group of clerks, operations managers, and reporting staff, who for two years studied ways to improve statistical reporting data quality.

Strengthening Cybersecurity

The Judiciary took steps to strengthen its defenses against the most common form of cyberattack – phishing. Deceptively crafted phishing emails try to trick receivers into disclosing sensitive information, clicking on illegitimate links, or opening infected attachments that harm their computers or networks. Sophisticated phishing attacks that target multiple courts and are made to appear as though they come from trusted sources have become more frequent. They also exploit the email accounts of legitimate organizations with which courts have trusted relationships and try to deceive court users into turning over sensitive information. In early October, as a security measure to defend against phishing attacks, labeling was added to the top and bottom of all emails from external sources to alert users that those emails originated outside of the Judiciary. Adding labels to external emails is one way to alert users to exercise additional caution when clicking on links and attachments in emails.

The AO in May started to require courts to implement nationally supported, layered IT tools by March 31, 2022. These tools make possible periodic vulnerability scanning and patch management for the timely identification and remediation of system weaknesses, centralized logging of all security-relevant events, web-based threat protection to protect Judiciary users from interacting with known malicious websites, protections against malware and malicious intrusion, and consistent administration of Judiciary-issued mobile devices.

By using these tools and configuring them to send their data for centralized analysis, the courts greatly improve the Judiciary’s overall cybersecurity posture.