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While infrequent, disruption of the virtual court proceedings is a possibility

Senior Editor Top Stories

computer data breach/Barbara KelleyA high-profile hearing related to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Second Judicial Circuit was “Zoom bombed” in what appears to be a rare targeting by hackers since Florida courts switched to mostly remote proceedings in March.

The incident occurred July 10 just as Circuit Judge John Cooper was preparing to hear a constitutional challenge to a Leon County ordinance that requires people to wear face masks when entering businesses.

A witness said Judge Cooper was off camera reviewing documents before the start of the hearing when a skull avatar accompanied by heavy metal music appeared on screen, followed by pornographic video images. The hearing, which drew wide media attention, was halted for about five minutes while the Zoom session was reset.

After the parties logged back in, Judge Cooper made a joking reference to the need for virtual bailiffs, but did not appear rattled, the witness said. The hearing concluded without further interruption.

Cooper ultimately rejected the challenge by Leon County Republican Executive Committee Chairman Evan Power, who was represented by Rep. Anthony Sabatini, an attorney and a Howey-in-the-Hills Republican. The county was represented by Tallahassee attorney Drew Parker.

Paul Flemming, a spokesman for the Office of State Courts Administrator, said that while “unfortunate and inappropriate,” the incident was brief and did not raise due process concerns.

“We wish that the interruption had not happened to Judge Cooper’s hearing,” Flemming said. “It did, it was addressed with minimal disruption, and we’re all going to do better tomorrow.”

OSCA does not track such attacks, Flemming said, so there is no way to know how frequently they occur. But anecdotal evidence suggests they are infrequent.

Zoom has multiple security features and OSCA remains confident that the technology is an optimal platform, Flemming said.

“OSCA has made best practices available to the circuits, and has had training on doing Zoom calling, and on what the appropriate setup and security settings are,” he said. “There are choices for full transparency that still protect the security of these hearings.”

Alfred J. Saikali, who chairs the Privacy and Data Security Practice for Shook Hardy & Bacon, said Florida courts deserve credit for pivoting to remote technology so rapidly and with relatively few problems since the health crisis emerged.

“They’ve moved ahead by 10 or 20 years in terms of technology in only a few months,” Saikali said.

Saikali said the most full-proof security measures, such as setting up a Zoom waiting room, issuing email invitations or requiring passwords, would compromise transparency.

“The court system is going to have to evaluate how to balance this,” he said.

But the challenge is not insurmountable, Saikali said, and will likely require the use of more “gatekeepers.”

“There are a number of solutions, and they all come down to having an administrative assistant who monitors everything, or a deputy clerk, or a bailiff,” he said.

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