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

Word of the whistleblowing e-mail spread like a virus. The programmers' message had gone out on a Friday afternoon. The next morning Masood Hussaini, head of the SPIRIT team, received an angry call from Ruben Lopez, his boss. Lopez, director of the technology department, "had gotten a call from the county manager, who was furious," remembers Byron Jones. "And the county manager had gotten a call from Harvey Ruvin, who was furious."By Monday morning Lopez ordered the renegade SPIRIT programmers into his office and excoriated them for their action. "He said, öYou're on your own,' and he stormed out," Jones recalls.

Over the next several days, Lopez began laying plans to remove the troublemakers from the SPIRIT project. Mary Fuentes, the technology department's assistant director, summoned Jones to her office and advised him to consider moving to a different job. "They made it sound like it was an opportunity," he scoffs. "I asked them, öWhat are my choices? Is one of them to stay on the SPIRIT project?' And they said no."

Angela Lesage, another SPIRIT programmer who had signed the May 28 e-mail, wasn't even afforded the opportunity to consider changing jobs. "They told her she'd be working in the elections department immediately, and the next day she was gone," Jones recalls. (Lesage declined comment.)

The clerk of the courts is proud of his optical scanners and data-entry clerks, but programmers say a good security system trusts no one
Jonathan Postal
The clerk of the courts is proud of his optical scanners and data-entry clerks, but programmers say a good security system trusts no one
A complicated digital divide separates Hussaini (center front) and his SPIRIT team from clerk of the courts contractor Tom James (far right)
Jonathan Postal
A complicated digital divide separates Hussaini (center front) and his SPIRIT team from clerk of the courts contractor Tom James (far right)

Fuentes then took aim at team leader Masood Hussaini, a 53-year-old programmer with 28 years' experience in software development, seventeen of them as a systems manager for the county. Eventually he too would be taken off the SPIRIT project, even though he hadn't been a party to the e-mail.

It wasn't until July 21 that the programmers were able to arrange a meeting with the three judges who'd received their e-mail and serve on a committee that oversees the clerk's office. The group met in the chambers of Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Samuel Slom. "They struck me as people who had a genuine concern for the security of the system," Judge Slom says of the encounter. Afterward he contacted Ruvin, who assured him that James, McGovern, and the tech department had already begun addressing the security flaws.

On July 28, in fact, Ruben Lopez sent a memo to his boss, county manager Burgess, revealing that he and other administrators in charge of SPIRIT seemed to be taking the whistleblowers' warnings to heart, even while yanking them off the project. "The security problem within the SPIRIT application is the result of a poor fundamental design which has existed since its inception," he wrote. "This of course is a concern that requires immediate attention." (Lopez, who does not work for Ruvin, apparently saw more problems than Tom James, who does work for Ruvin. James earlier had sent Lopez this message: "[Ruvin] recognizes that it might be possible to compromise some individual cases with the security afforded by the SPIRIT system, but this is a risk he is willing to accept.")

Lopez, in his memo to Burgess, also tried to explain the rift between his tech department employees and the clerk's consultants. "Members of the Accenture team would like their engagement extended and other consultants would also like to keep their jobs," he noted, whereas county programmers feel "a sense of ownership over the system and its integrity." Why? Because they had taken over operational responsibility for it in 2001.

SPIRIT, which stands for Simultaneous Paperless Image Retrieval Information Technology, grew out of an extensive analysis of the Miami-Dade Clerk of the Courts office by Andersen Consulting. The seven-volume study, commissioned under former clerk of the courts Marshall Ader, contained a plan for replacing the court system's paper-based records with optical images. It was the first batch of reading material that awaited former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Harvey Ruvin when he defeated Ader in 1992 and assumed the clerk's post. (See sidebar describing the clerk of courts office.)

"About a week after I was elected I had a visit from the State Attorney's Office, advising me that there was an investigation under way that could involve as many as a dozen employees in the traffic division," Ruvin recalls during an interview in his office on the second floor of the historic Miami-Dade courthouse in downtown Miami. "They were tampering, they were selling information, they were changing records. I quickly learned that any paper-based system is a security nightmare." Moreover the Andersen study had discovered that thousands of traffic cases had never been set for hearings.

Ruvin renewed Andersen's consulting contract, but with a far more ambitious goal than mere analysis. Without bothering to request proposals from other companies, Ruvin sought to have Andersen actually create the system that would move the clerk's office solidly into the computer age. Furthermore Ruvin persuaded Andersen to share ownership of the patented new system with the clerk's office. They would then jointly market it, which could mean big bucks if SPIRIT were a success and others wanted to purchase it. Ruvin saw himself on the leading edge of a digital revolution that would one day spread to court systems across the nation.

The Executive Policy Committee -- an oversight panel of judges, court administrators, and county information technology managers that meets about twice a year -- chose the circuit court's Traffic Information System to be the first to receive SPIRIT. "Traffic court was the way to go because it's the place the majority of citizens interface with the court system," Ruvin explains. His long-term plan was to extend SPIRIT to all other judicial realms, including the family, probate, juvenile, and criminal courts.

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