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  • Martin Felsky

What judges need to know about the "need to know"

There are so many examples in the news these days about unauthorized access to sensitive information. I am talking about access by people with security clearance, not hackers. This often happens because there is a missing element in security procedures. Court staff (and sometimes counsel) are given access to a system for a particular matter, and they end up with the capability to "browse" around to matters in which they have no involvement. In other words, no need to know.

The need to know principle is a cornerstone of best practices in information security. This principle dictates that access to sensitive information, regardless of its classification, should only be granted to individuals who require it for the performance of their professional responsibilities. The principle is key to preserving the integrity of a court's information assets and mitigating the risk of unauthorized or unnecessary access to sensitive information.

In practice, the application of the need to know principle is dependent on the information's classification. Public information, due to its low-risk nature, does not necessitate the application of this principle. However, the classifications of confidential, restricted, and secret necessitate a progressively stringent application of the need to know. Confidential information may be required by court staff and judges to perform their roles; restricted information is accessible to a narrower group of individuals with specific functional needs; and secret information is strictly limited to those with a critical necessity for access in relation to specific tasks.

Enforcement of the need to know principle can only be achieved through a combination of technical controls and procedural measures. From a technical standpoint, advanced access control systems in a cloud-hosted environment would restrict access to sensitive data, with access rights granted based on individual roles and responsibilities.

All court staff, judges, and permitted external users should undergo training on data sensitivity and security protocols, which will underscore the importance of the need to know principle and the potential ramifications of unauthorized access or disclosure. Regular audits and monitoring will improve compliance with this principle. Staff breaches may result in disciplinary action or legal consequences, reiterating the court’s commitment to maintaining the highest standards of data security and privacy.

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