Confidential Court Documents Exposed in SolarWinds Hack

  • By David Lukic
  • Jan 13, 2021

Another in the long list of affected agencies, the U.S. federal court system admitted last week that they too had been hacked in the SolarWinds incident. 


What is The SolarWinds Data Breach

SolarWinds Data Breach

Hackers accessed confidential (sealed) court documents contained in an electronic filing system during the SolarWinds Orion attack. The federal court system has suspended all use of any SolarWinds products until further notice. 


The news came in a notice posted by the Administrative Office (AO) of the U.S. Courts last Wednesday. In the memo, they assured the public that they are re-examining their process for storing sensitive legal documents and will be executing more stringent controls going forward.


The AO said this in their report “The AO is working with the Department of Homeland Security on a security audit relating to vulnerabilities in the Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files system (CM/ECF) that greatly risk compromising highly sensitive non-public documents stored on CM/ECF, particularly sealed filings.”


“An apparent compromise of the confidentiality of the CM/ECF system due to these discovered vulnerabilities currently is under investigation. Due to the nature of the attacks, the review of this matter and its impact is ongoing.”


How Did The SolarWinds Hack Happen

SolarWinds Hack

The supply chain attack involved the use of backdoor (vulnerability) in SolarWinds Orion products that has since been patched. The breach occurred in March 2020 and affected roughly 18,000 users.


Although the AO would not comment further, KrebsOnSecurity was able to get a comment from an inside source who claimed the federal court system was “hit hard.” The same insider hinted that along with the Sunburst malware, the AO suffered an additional malware attack nicknamed “Teardrop” and that perhaps this agency was a primary target for the incident. 


Many believe the Russians are behind this latest attack due to the sophistication and execution of such a large, organized hacking incident.


The AO maintains a public-facing court document records tool called PACER that anyone can use. The system is fee-based and does not contain sensitive or private documents. However, in other parts of the AO system, court-ordered sealed documents and private files reside. The information is not linked to national security but rather files that contain victim information, law enforcement cases that are ongoing, and sealed criminal and civil filings.


According to Data Breach Today, “Under new guidelines that are being immediately implemented, the federal court system will only accept highly sensitive court documents either in paper form or through a secure electronic device, such as a thumb drive, and then will store these documents in a secure, stand-alone computer system and not upload them to the CM/ECF system. That policy will be in place as an audit continues, according to the notice.”


Although the information did not leak any national secrets, it would have contained a lot of sensitive information about ongoing federal cases. If leaked or used, it could negatively affect those cases. Unfortunately, this could have been a potential purpose for the attack. 


Data Breach Today warned that “If an actor can access data, that actor may be able to change it, which means a loss of integrity. That means that from this point forward, anyone who is the subject of a federal investigation that has been remanded to the courts can argue that the information - which likely includes descriptions of evidence - cannot be trusted.”


Who is Behind The SolarWinds Data Breach


Along with the U.S. federal courts, the U.S. Justice System also released a statement that they too were involved in the Solar Winds attack. Their report notes that more than 100,000 DOJ employee Office 365 email accounts were accessed and exploited. 

It is clear we have not heard the last of how far this data breach reaches and the total impact. Data breaches can prove to be deadly, and the consequences to be fatal both to a country, and to us citizens.

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