Alaska Court System services slowly coming back online after cyberattack

A concrete sign with an emblem of the Alaska flag and the words "Nesbett Courthouse". A sidwalk and streetlamps are in the background
Nesbett Courthouse in downtown Anchorage on June 9, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

After nearly two weeks, the Alaska Court System’s email came back online on Tuesday.

But other services are still down after a cyberattack last month. The disruption has limited public access and further complicated court operations already backlogged by the pandemic.

Court staff, judges and attorneys are finding ways to adapt, while also reverting to a few old routines in place before development of the internet.

“We’ve walked back a lot of the strides that we made to adapt to COVID, going back to the more traditional way of doing things,” said Angie Kemp, the District Attorney for Juneau and Sitka.

Some of those traditional ways include physically carrying documents down to the clerk’s office in the bottom of the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau.

Or dusting the cobwebs off of a fax machine to send documents to other attorneys and judges in the region.

“One of the interesting aspects about this is fax became kind of antiquated technology. And so I think the court system was sort of cycling fax machines out,” Kemp recalled. “I know from speaking to some of their IT folks that they’ve had to scramble a bit to get those things back in place.”

The state’s relatively new electronic filing system is shut down, which has caused problems with attorneys and local police departments statewide.

The cyberattack, which was discovered on April 29, effectively disabled that and other Alaska Court System functions accessible through the internet. The connection has been severed, so a cybersecurity contractor can eliminate any malware and prevent further breaches.

In addition to electronic filing, the CourtView case tracking system used to check someone’s history in state courts is also disconnected.

Online payments for bail and fees has also been disabled.

The disruption also shut down communication with clerks, judges and their staff by court system email. Court staff were communicating with alternative messaging services or Gmail accounts.

Dimond Courthouse
The Dimond Courthouse in Juneau on Feb. 27, 2017. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Court calendars initially were inaccessible, though some courthouses posted calendars on dedicated Facebook pages. Now, they are going to a new, separate web page.

Kemp said they’ve returned to physically transporting defendants from jail to the courthouse.

And, to keep many cases moving, judges are holding more teleconferenced hearings.

During the pandemic, the court shifted from in-person to videoconferenced court hearings. That’s not possible right now. Neither is live streaming hearings through YouTube.

“One of the things that I think the court system is doing relatively well is it started to shift and using technology well to accommodate the pandemic,” said Robert Henderson, Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center. “With this cyberattack, that’s really impacted their ability to do that.”

For example, someone’s credibility is easier to determine during videoconferenced testimony.

“We humans, we routinely communicate through nonverbal cues both in emphasis, and manner and delivery, and the like,” Henderson said. “And video conferencing allows the trier of fact, meaning the judge, allows the judge to assess credibility in a way that he or she can’t do that on a telephone, at least not as well.”

Angie Kemp and Richard Harruff
Then-Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp listens as a medical expert answers a question by videoconference during testimony in a 2013 homicide trial in Juneau. (Matt Miller/KTOO)

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger said malware infected about half a dozen computers. Some of those computers operated essential online services during the pandemic, like email filing and videoconferencing.

“Not being able to do those things for a few days, I’m sure has disrupted our operations a little bit, and has been an inconvenience to our customers,” Bolger said.

The court system’s email came back on line on Tuesday. Bolger said other online services will be restored individually over the next several days.

“Right now, we’re just trying to assess the extent of the damage and see if we can reopen safely,” Bolger said.

Bolger said they did not receive a message or ransom demand from someone claiming to launch the attack. They do not know the motive. State and federal law enforcement authorities have been notified.

Matt Miller is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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