WAUKEGAN, IL — Lake County courtrooms were disrupted last week after intruders discovered a vulnerability in the configuration of the video-teleconferencing software used to conduct hearings remotely, court officials said. In response, the public livestreamed courtroom video feeds were cut and a criminal investigation was opened.
Ten courtrooms were interrupted by "Zoom-bombing" incidents, with up to six accounts at the time in a single room impersonating judges and others, according to circuit court spokesperson Kasey Morgan. She said the intrusion sowed confusion about who was who, sending the proceedings into disarray.
"There was a lot of disruption in the courtroom," Morgan said. "There was a threat made against a member of the judiciary that's being looked into as well."
In some cases, two logins purported to both be the same defendant, she said, requiring them to be moved to a waiting room until attorneys could determine which one was an imposter.
Like many courts during the coronavirus pandemic, Lake County's 19th Judicial Circuit has been conducting hearings over Zoom software. Litigants, attorneys and defendants are asked to log in using their name or case number so that judges can address them at the appropriate time.
But the one or more online mischief-makers who appeared in court last week found a way to gain additional privileges by signing in using the name "court reporter," Morgan explained. Once inside, they could change their names to anything and share their screen with wild and inappropriate backgrounds.
"People that are in court need to be able to hear and see the judge. It's already difficult enough in Zoom to understand these proceedings, and the judges do need to offer the proper service and provide the proper explanations," Morgan said. "To have someone disrupt those calls is very damaging sometimes to those that are involved participating."
Lake County Sheriff's Office detectives are investigating the incidents in an effort to determine the identity of the online intruders, according to Sgt. Chris Covelli.
Chief Judge Diane Winters ordered the YouTube streams of court procedures cut to avoid providing the Zoom-bombers a larger platform, Morgan said. No further incidents have taken place since the public streams were taken down. And some judges have, at their own discretion, decided to resume public broadcasts.
"We just are asking people to respect the concept of court. Even though this isn't in person, this is still a professional proceeding and it's still impactful on people's lives," she said. "We need to make sure that it's taken seriously and handled appropriately and that everybody gets the time they deserve in front of the judge and that is respected."
Under Illinois Supreme Court rules, recording and disseminating judicial proceedings is forbidden and grounds to be jailed for contempt of court. Some livestreams of Lake County proceedings have been recorded and posted online, Morgan said, and in those cases court officials have requested their removal.
While there have been no reports of Zoom-bombing in Cook County courtrooms, Chief Judge Tim Evans ordered YouTube feeds changed to audio-only for pretrial and some felony courtrooms following an incident where an illegally recorded video of a defendant claiming to be a federal informant in May was later posted online and widely disseminated.
Evans warned such violations of the prohibition on recording court proceedings may have endangered the safety of judges, court staff and other people.
“Livestreaming court proceedings makes public proceedings more accessible to the general public and nothing is broadcast that wouldn't be observable in the courtroom,” Evans said. “It is an unfortunately part of human nature that, some people will misuse public information to the detriment of others. Minimizing that is a principal reason for the Supreme Court Rule and my order against recording proceedings, as well as the court's inherent authority to close proceedings to the public.”
Anyone who wants to see the court proceedings that have been switched to audio can still view them from the jury assembly room at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, 2600 S. California Ave.
Most suburban Cook County courthouses, despite conducting business using Zoom software, have not publicly broadcast what happens in them. Only courthouses in Markham and Bridgeview had any courtroom livestreams available.