Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an archaic, document tracking system used by the federal courts. This is the database that stores all complaints, court motions, case scheduling and decisions.
In 2001, the Judicial Conference of the US released a web-based version of the PACER database allowing remote access to most federal civil court documents over the Internet. Those in favor of this step urged full access on the grounds that a public database should be open to the public. However, those who were not in favor of this open access urged caution and cited privacy concerns and potential of misuse of information and identity theft.
In order to ensure that the information was not exploited in any way, the courts developed a system that allowed access to documents to users who created a password-protected account. In order to further facilitate access. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC) began a two year pilot program in 2007 that offered free and unrestricted access at 17 libraries that participated in the Federal Depository Library Program.
Once the pilot program began, many visitors used the free service. The primary users of this free information were Pro se litigants who mainly used PACER to keep track of their cases. In addition, students, attorneys and journalists also benefited from this service. The pilot program saw an average of 30 visitors per month and the program managers were satisfied with this number because it was encouraging and manageable.
In September 2008, all the participating librarians received an urgent email that advised them to change their account passwords. Once they did that, they received another message informing them that the pilot program had been suspended.
It was then they found out that there had been a security breach and that a few of the pilot program passwords had been used to download a massive amount of documents. This included Aaron Swartz, a 22 year old computer genius who had downloaded 20 million pages of PACER documents. It is believed that Swartz was inspired by Carl Malamud’s call. Malamud is the founder of Public.Resource.org and was the one to initiate the massive download of documents which eventually led to the suspension of the free PACER pilot program.
Malamud had previously described PACER as the most broken part of the US federal legal mechanism. He describes PACER as a “system designed in the bygone days of screechy telephone modems. Cumbersome, arcane and not free, it is everything that Google is not.” Malamud claims that his actions were based on an effort to make court records more accessible.
A spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts did not reveal whether or when the pilot program would resume, or whether the federal government would pursue legal proceedings against Malamud or Swartz. Malamud has reportedly said, “I want the whole database in 2009.” It is believed that Malamud has also discovered instances of allegedly unlawful disclosure of personally identifying information in PACER documents. He has requested the courts to correct this.
Please Contact New York City Defense Attorney to know more on Public Access to Court Electronic Records.