Judges Protest Internet Monitoring

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A number of federal judges are protesting the monitoring of their computers by Washington managers who are concerned about personal Internet use.

The judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco claim the practice is illegal and they are pressing to have it stopped. The Supreme Court chief justice along with other judges will consider the request next month.

To demonstrate their discontent, judges of the 9th Circuit ordered staff to disable monitoring software in May. The weeklong shutdown affected 10,000 court employees in the Circuit, which covers nine states and two territories, and two other court districts.

Leonidas Ralph Mecham, who runs the Administrative Office of the Courts in Washington, issued a security alert afterward. Mecham said the shutdown "put the entire judiciary's data communications network ... at risk." He said the protest was irresponsible because the court had recently detected attempts to break into its system by overseas hackers.

Mecham also reminded judges that an analysis had revealed that as much as half of Internet use on court computers "may not be directly business related."

Many private employers and other government offices also use software to monitor their employees' Internet surfing and detect the downloading of music or pornography.

Chief Judge Mary Schroeder of the 9th Circuit said court employees had been disciplined for unauthorized computer use even though they were not fully aware of the court's policy on the matter.

"We are concerned about the propriety and even the legality of monitoring Internet usage," she wrote in a June 29 memorandum obtained by The New York Times.

Schroeder said the court administrators may have violated a federal communications privacy act. She also discounted any possible security breaches. Staff monitored activity that week and found no problems, she said.

The courts' policy on inappropriate use of the Internet was redistributed to the court districts in March.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, the court's policy-making group of 27 judges, is expected to discuss the situation at its next meeting Sept. 11. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist heads the group.

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