Attorneys say private information exposed to public in NC courts overhaul
RALEIGH, N.C. Local Charlotte — Raleigh criminal defense attorney Clarke Martin practices law in both federal and state court. She also serves as a court appointed attorney when defendants can’t afford a lawyer.
To qualify as indigent, you have to prove your lack of ability to pay including income and expenses. The affidavit also includes the individual’s social security number.
All of that should be private. But Martin said she recently found out it wasn’t when she went onto the eCourt system to check on a client’s trial date.
Martin explained “I ticked it off my list and then thought… I’m on my phone. I’m not logged in; I’ll see what the mobile interface looks like because this is a new program. Clicked on a document, opened it up and there was his social security number. So, with no log-in, no special court access, just regular me on my home wi-fi on my phone, I was able to access that. So, I immediately reached out to the appropriate people, and had the redaction done less than 12 hours later.”
CBS 17 spoke with other attorneys and advocates for criminal defendants who shared similar stories. Texas-based Tyler Technologies was chosen and contracted by the state to implement the new platform. Attorneys in other jurisdictions outside of North Carolina have also claimed private data was made public due to problems with their version of eCourt software.
It’s North Carolina law that social security numbers, banking information, driver licenses and passports not be included in court documents unless they are redacted. “And that’s a really serious privacy issue. It’s also a violation of North Carolina law. So, to publish a court document with someone’s social security number on it without redaction and without justification is a violation of our general statutes,” said Clarke.
If there is a breach state law says it must be reported to the Consumer Protection Division of the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office.
Attorney General Josh Stein’s office said Thursday they have not yet received any breach notices. In a statement, Stein’s office also explained who is responsible for reporting a breach:
“Pursuant to the ID Theft Act, the data owner is responsible for notifying the impacted consumers and the Attorney General’s Office. If an attorney uploaded information that should have been redacted, it would be the attorney. A vendor, which is a maintainer/possessor, has to report a breach to the data owner if the maintainer has suffered a breach.”
The platform launched in the pilot counties of Wake, Johnston, Harnett and Lee on February 13.
The planned May pilot launch for Mecklenburg County is now on hold before a statewide launch. The NC Administrative Office of the Courts and the NC Judicial Branch say that will remain the case until “key defects” can be resolved.
The office also said in a statement, “we continue to make progress in our implementation of eCourts. We are focused on providing support to end users and working with Tyler to resolve defects that have arisen since go-live. While we are glad that more than half the issues that have arisen have already been closed/resolved, important other issues remain.”
Tyler Technologies has requested all media inquiries be sent to the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts and the NC Judicial Branch.
Martin said will continue to do everything she can to keep any private information from being accessible to the public.
“I know I’ve asked for that information to be redacted and that I’ve filed the appropriate motions and going forward, I’ll continue to do that because that’s what I need to do to protect them,” said Martin.
She also told CBS 17 she did not have to go through those steps before eCourts launched and that it was a much simpler process to request a redaction.
Martin worries such exposure makes a person vulnerable to having their identity stolen and the information being used against them, whether by a human or a bot.
“They can be pulling those documents, scanning them and looking for personal identifying information or PII, and then storing it—and that’s really dangerous,” she said.
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