Court officials increase online security after 'Zoom bombing' incidents
After a rash of "Zoom bombing" by one or more people last week, Lake County court officials have stopped broadcasting most virtual courtrooms to YouTube pending an investigation.
Over two days last week, 10 different virtual courtrooms were disrupted by one or more uninvited people, according to court officials. Once in meetings on the Zoom online platform, the person or people would display offensive materials, make loud noises and otherwise make the court hearings impossible to continue.
"They were people who came into the Zoom meetings to cause disruptions," said court spokeswoman Kasey Morgan. "In a normal courtroom, a person doing that would be held in contempt of court."
Morgan said in one instance serious threats were made against a Lake County judge and the judge's family.
"The family and personal information was released about that person in a public open setting of the Zoom call," said Morgan, who declined to comment more because of the ongoing investigation.
Officials in other suburban courthouses did not report similar disruptions to their virtual court proceedings.
Kane County Court administrator Doug Naughton said that while the county has not experienced "Zoom bombing," officials did have to disable the public's ability to comment on the YouTube livestream of court hearings after a few weeks of allowing it.
"Often the commentary mocked the judges and the criminal defendants, especially if they were on the morning or afternoon bond call," Naughton said.
Mary Wisniewski, director of communications at the Cook County courthouse in Rolling Meadows, said there have been issues with livestreaming related to violations of Illinois Supreme Court rules prohibiting recording or photographing judicial proceedings.
As a result, the court is doing audio-only livestreams for all pretrial matters.
Clint Hull, a former prosecutor who is now chief judge in Kane County, said there hasn't been an instance of someone "Zoom bombing" a court hearing but officials are aware of the possibility.
Hull said any instance would be dealt with very seriously.
"We would view it as if someone was interfering with our ability to hold court," he said.
When Lake County court officials set up the virtual court system in late May so legal proceedings could continue safely during the COVID-19 global pandemic, the idea was for Zoom calls to include the judge, lawyers for both sides, the person whose case was up and other court officials such as a court reporter.
Those Zoom calls would be broadcast live on YouTube so members of the public could watch along, similar to how the public can sit in on court hearings.
Morgan said last week one person or a group of people discovered that setting the Zoom user name to "court reporter" or something similar would allow access to online court hearings without being invited by court officials.
Once inside, the person was free to do all kinds of things. Morgan said in some cases the people changed their user names again, such as to that of the judge or another official, and would write messages in the zoom chat. Others would unmute themselves and "cause chaos."
Morgan said that while she can't say publicly what security solutions have been or will be put in place to avoid future distractions, court officials have been working hard.
"This is still court. We expect the best out of everybody," Morgan said.
"Court is still court even though it's through Zoom."
And progress is already being made -- on Tuesday and Wednesday the court proceedings of Lake County Judge Patricia Fix were conducted in a Zoom call that was livestreamed on YouTube.
• Daily Herald legal affairs writers Harry Hitzeman, Susan Sarkauskas and Barbara Vitello contributed to this report.