Over the past decade, the federal courts became the world’s most transparent court system. It was a big switch from paper to electronic filing. Alabama is no exception. All court cases are now accessed with the push of a button. Your life is an open book.
You can walk right in, and no log-in is needed. With the click of a mouse, you’re invited into a statewide database. Using a hidden camera, WHNT News 19 decided to test the system. Our undercover producer types in an all-American name like Smith or Jones. We take a few screen shots then ordered a case file from the county clerk. We now have everything we need to steal someone’s identity. That someone is Ms. Jones, and we contacted her about what we found.
“I have your name, ex-husbands name, your little boy’s name, socials for everyone, addresses, birthdates, child support information, all this in a packet of paper that cost me $14.00,” we explained to Ms. Jones.
“It’s pitiful, honestly, for you to basically, well… it’s like you are holding the key to my life in your hands,” said Ms. Jones.
Ms. Jones is not a criminal, she’s a newly single mother. That’s the reason we were able to dig up her sensitive and private information, because her divorce case had recently been entered in Alabama’s court system.
“For a complete stranger to able to go up there and retrieve this information and basically have my whole life story, and to come to me and let me know everything there is to know about me, it’s very upsetting,” said Ms. Jones.
That’s also the key reason we are hiding her identity for this interview. Her life was floating around in cyberspace.
“Is there also a concern here that your children’s information is being offered up?” WHNT NEWS 19 asked Ms. Jones.
“You know, we do have predators out here and by me having two young kids, they could be watching my moves and learning my schedule,” Ms. Jones replied.
We took these concerns to Madison County Circuit Clerk Jane Smith.
“People all over the world can look at the Madison County Court records via our website,” said Smith.
That surprised Ms. Jones.
“From my understanding, you did have to have the individual’s Social Security Numbers to get info on them, but to be able to type in a last name and everything pops up, that took me for a ride,” Ms. Jones said.
Jones’ surprise by the lack of security for personal information wasn’t shared by the Madison County court officials.
“There’s lots of confidential or sensitive information in divorce files,” said Smith.
In fact, only youthful offender cases and victims of domestic violence get privacy protection. Smith says she acknowledges the public computers are a potential gateway for bad guys.
“Even as you said, around the world, somebody can get their hands on this information?” WHNT NEWS 19 asked Smith.
“Absolutely,” said Smith.
“Jane, is that concerning at all to you?” we pressed.
“It’s very concerning to me, and these issues have been addressed at a state level with the programs being written so that Social Security Numbers will be blocked out of any information that is scanned,” replied Smith.
Smith is referring to Alacourt, an online service that provides instant access to Alabama court records. At the courthouse, searches are free. At home, there’s a small charge for online access to Alacourt. And this database fills up fast. More than 60,000 cases were E-filed into Alacourt last year. The Madison County Courthouse started E-filing their cases in 2005. Now, all cases from 1980 on have been digitally dropped in.
So who’s responsible for a cyber leak that’s perfectly legal? WHNT News 19 posed that question to Smith.
“There was a Supreme [Court] ruling that passed a few years ago that places the responsibility on the attorneys to redact information that is sensitive or confidential,” said Smith.
Problem solved, right? Or are the courts passing the buck?
“If there is a way to get something redacted, a way to do it, and the judge would order that, the lawyer would certainly have the right to try that and ask that it be redacted,” said Huntsville attorney Mark McDaniel.
McDaniel, one of Madison County’s most prominent attorneys is left scratching his head about this. He says the sensitive information on the courty paperwork he fills out regularly is required.
“So you are saying Alacourt is a great tool, but it is also a tool for criminals?” WHNT NEWS 19 asked McDaniel.
“Absolutely, any kind of technology that was meant for good can be turned to evil,” replied McDaniel.
“I don’t think anyone has any reason to be any more alarmed now than they had a reason to be alarmed 10 years ago,” said Smith.
Things are definitely not the same, though. There were 10,000,000 victims of identity theft in 2010.
As things stand right now, even overseas predators can tap into your life and steal it. So for now, know this.
“Your life is an open book,” said McDaniel.
And a system that has sworn to defend you is releasing the one thing that defines you.
“I can’t believe they are not protecting our information like they should be. and I think something needs to be done about it,” said Ms. Jones.
The courts tell WHNT News 19 that a technology commission is looking into these issues. They also say developers of Alacourt have tried to implement changes to their software that would identify Social Security Numbers and make them unavailable.
So what can you do to get your sensitive information off Alacourt? Viewers can file the appropriate motion with the courts and ask that any sensitive information be redacted. We were told there is no cost associated with this.
Even if things change in the future, what about all the old cases? And with Madison County Court layoffs left and right, who’s going to police the old records?
The court says point blank, there is not enough manpower.