Yours for the Hacking

The county’s court system has spent $36 million on a revolutionary new database, but when programmers warned it was vulnerable, they’re the ones who got deleted

Computer programmer Byron Jones knew big trouble was looming before he arrived at work on Wednesday, August 25. Earlier that morning he'd received a call from a co-worker at the Miami-Dade satellite courthouse in Coral Gables: Jones's computer and several others had just been removed from their workstations and locked away.

Walking into the courthouse on Ponce de Leon Boulevard a short time later, Jones noticed none of the usual friendly smiles. "Basically the security guards swarmed around me," recalls the stocky 34-year-old. The guards informed him they'd just received a memo from the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts office. They were not to allow him into the building.

Sure, the computer program Jones had been troubleshooting for the past four years had major flaws, some of which had been documented a decade earlier. And yes, he and six of his colleagues had finally grown so anxious about a potential security breach that they'd gone public with their concerns. But Jones never thought he'd be labeled a security risk and purged from the project for doing so. As it turned out, he wasn't alone. Three of his co-workers, as well as their team leader, since then have been reassigned to other computer projects.

Ex-SPIRIT programmers (clockwise from upper left): Johnny Hoben, Juan Galego, Masood Hussaini, Randy Feigenbaum, and Byron Jones
Ex-SPIRIT programmers (clockwise from upper left): Johnny Hoben, Juan Galego, Masood Hussaini, Randy Feigenbaum, and Byron Jones
Ex-SPIRIT programmers (clockwise from upper left): Johnny Hoben, Juan Galego, Masood Hussaini, Randy Feigenbaum, and Byron Jones
Jonathan Postal
Ex-SPIRIT programmers (clockwise from upper left): Johnny Hoben, Juan Galego, Masood Hussaini, Randy Feigenbaum, and Byron Jones

The soft-spoken Jones is among the legion of computer nerds who risk eye and wrist week after week to make sure the county's aging computer systems continue to run smoothly. In 2000, after a three-and-a-half year gig at the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, he'd joined the Miami-Dade Enterprise Technology Services Department, which provides tech support and services for all the county's departments and agencies. From there he was assigned to a group of eight other programmers charged with running SPIRIT, an eleven-year-old system that Miami-Dade Clerk of the Courts Harvey Ruvin hopes will one day contain all the county's court records.

Created exclusively for the clerk of the courts in 1993 by Andersen Consulting, SPIRIT is still confined to the traffic division of the Miami-Dade court system. It transforms paper citations and other court documents into digital images, making them instantly retrievable by judges, their clerks, police officers, public defenders, and state prosecutors. Thanks to SPIRIT, traffic court trial dates are set more efficiently and judges and their assistants can pull up case files on their virtual desktops, enter rulings into user-friendly documents, and move cases along -- quickly.

Normally the technology department programmers walk through the Gables branch courthouse in relative anonymity, but not the morning of Jones's security swarm. After detaining him, the security guards summoned a police officer, who in turn contacted one of Jones's supervisors, Adrienne DiPrima. She escorted him to her office and passed along a message from the department director: His work on SPIRIT was finished. He was being transferred off the project.

Over the next week DiPrima phoned two more of Jones's programming colleagues, Johnny Hoben and Juan Galego, each of whom had 22 years' experience on county computer systems. They too were kicked off the project. All three men had warned that because of a flawed security mechanism, including the way the user ID and password system was set up, the SPIRIT database was far too vulnerable to mischievous programmers or malicious hackers. All three also had questioned the need for highly paid private consultants on the project and suspected that profit motives had taken priority over sound judgment. And all three had recently expressed their concerns to the media.

In fact one of those outside consultants, Tom James, had issued the order to seize Jones's computer. Jones phoned him that morning to demand an explanation: "What Tom James told me that morning was that because we went to the press, we were a security risk."

Call them security risks or whistleblowers, but months before contacting the press, Byron Jones, Johnny Hoben, Juan Galego, and four other senior programmers on the SPIRIT team had sent an unnerving e-mail to three Miami-Dade judges, county mayor Alex Penelas, and county manager George Burgess.

"The SPIRIT system," they wrote on May 28, "is not adequately secured or protected to ensure the reliability and accuracy of record keeping and judges' rulings. It is fully vulnerable in many ways -- records can be easily tampered with by practically anyone working in this system without any reliable audit trail."

For four years the programmers had tried to resolve the matter. "Unfortunately," they concluded, "this has not been the SPIRIT Project Manager [Tom McGovern]'s priority."

They asked for an investigation of the project's consultants, including 56-year-old Tom James, whose private company is Syzygy Consulting; 80-year-old McGovern, a retired Air Force colonel and former director of the county's Information Technology Department; and Accenture, a firm created out of a division of Andersen Consulting after Andersen's involvement in the Enron accounting scandal. The programmers accused James of promoting his company at government expense. They found it "bizarre" that a private consultant was also serving as the clerk of courts' chief information officer. Moreover, they alleged, James had engaged in "verbal abuse, harassment, and intimidation" of county employees.

Of Tom McGovern they wrote: "There have been absolutely no legitimate reasons for having this contractor aboard for all these years....There is an undeniable history of this consultant's vigorous efforts to keep Accenture's contract extended at any cost." Accenture itself, they claimed, was a "high-priced and low-quality contractor" that had "never even gone through rudimentary, fair, and competitive procurement practices." (Accenture made news in July for having developed the flawed computer program used to create a list of convicted Florida felons who were to be removed from voter rolls. The list was scrapped when it was discovered there were virtually no Hispanics on it. Because a majority of Hispanics in Florida have tended to vote Republican, and Accenture's Tallahassee lobbyists have GOP ties, the debacle prompted cries of election-rigging. In August Florida's State Technology Office terminated a separate $86.7 million contract with Accenture for computer services after an audit determined officials ignored bid procedures when they awarded the contract.)

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