Federal courts hit by "significant and sophisticated" cyberattack in 2020

At a congressional hearing on Thursday, members of Congress asked a Justice Department official about the breach, which they said was unrelated to the SolarWinds attack.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer
Close-up of a person wearing glasses leaning toward a computer screen. Lines of code reflect on the glasses.
Image: Getty

The US federal court system was hit with a significant cyber breach in 2020, unrelated to the SolarWinds attack, that a US congressman on Thursday called "incredibly significant and sophisticated." 

At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, noted that the Administrative Office of the Courts released a public statement about the breach on January 6, 2021. However, he also said: "It was only in March of this year the committee first learned of the startling breadth and scope of the court's Document Management System security failure. And perhaps even more concerning is the disturbing impact the security breach had on pending civil and criminal litigation, as well as ongoing national security or intelligence matters."

The breach, Nadler said, "has since had lingering impacts on the department and other agencies." 

SEE: What, exactly, is cybersecurity? And why does it matter?

Nadler asked Justice Department official Matt Olsen what types of cases, investigations or US attorneys offices were impacted most by the breach. 

Olsen, assistant attorney general for the National Security Division of the Justice Department, said he couldn't speak directly to the nature of an ongoing investigation regarding efforts to compromise public judicial dockets. 

"This is, of course, a significant concern for us given the nature of information often held by the courts," he said. 

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said the committee needs to hear from the Justice Department how many cases were impacted and how many of those were dismissed. 

"This is a dangerous set of circumstances," she said. 

The massive, Kremlin-backed SolarWinds attack targeted a wide swath of US entities -- nine federal government agencies, including the Treasury Department and Department of Commerce, as well as 100 private sector organizations. The attackers infiltrated these organizations in part by inserting malware into the Orion IT monitoring platform, a SolarWinds product. The malware was distributed via software updates sent out to SolarWinds customers between March and June 2020.

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