INTERNET LAW - Government’s Internet and Computer Network Connections v. Temporary Restraining Orders to Disconnect

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Government and private entities rely on technological systems to conduct their day-to-day dealings, and they are bound to secure these systems to protect confidential and private information. Hence, may a plaintiff request a temporary restraining order to disconnect a government's agency"s Internet and computer network under the claim that it does not follow security guidelines? This is an interesting question that might not cross anyone’s mind, but that the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had to decide.

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Government and private entities rely on technological systems to conduct their day-to-day dealings, and they are bound to secure these systems to protect confidential and private information.  Hence, may a plaintiff request a temporary restraining order to disconnect a government's agency"s Internet and computer network under the claim that it does not follow security guidelines?  This is an interesting question that might not cross anyone’s mind, but that the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had to decide.

In the case of Cobell v. Kempthorne, 455 F.3d 301 (2006), the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had to decide whether a district court’s temporary restraining order could be sustained. The order required the U.S. Department of Interior to disconnect its Internet and computer network until litigation between the parties ended.  The court of appeals held that this was a drastic step, and an abuse of discretion by the district court.

Cobell v. Kempthorne was a class action involving complex issues. Plaintiffs/appellees were the beneficiaries of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) Trust, and the defendants/appellants were the Secretary of Interior and other government parties. The Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of the Interior were the designated trustee-delegates of the IIM.  The Secretary of the Interior (Interior) was in charge of executing most of the government’s trust duties, and the Treasury held and invested the IIM funds.  The class action demanded Interior to perform trust obligations, and requested a temporary restraining order to disconnect Interior’s Internet and computer network as a result of the Interior’s failure to maintain an adequate security system.  The district court entered a preliminary injunction ordering Interior to disconnect its Internet and computer network, and to reconnect with the district court’s approval. The district court held that Interior had failed to properly secure its IT system and that "Interior's IT managers seem incapable of ensuring the implementation of IT security policies on the one hand, and recognizing fundamental, systemic flaws in those policies on the other. Id. Additionally, the district court identified deficiencies in Interior's management of internal network security against threats from sources such as employees, contractors, and tribes -- i.e., those who could misuse legitimate network access. Id. at 254-55. The district court found that Interior had "no concrete plans for implementation" of penetration testing against internal threats, and that Interior has not incorporated evaluation of third-party systems housing Interior assets into its overall IT security program. Id. at 255-56.”

The court of appeals held that “[T]o determine whether injunctive relief is appropriate, the court must balance the equities and hardships on both sides, and must pay particular regard to whether such relief would further the public interest.”  The court vacated the district court’s injunctive relief because it found that the standards to grant these measures had not been met. “[w]hen weighed against the harm that DOI would experience from disconnection, the balance of equities weighed against granting injunctive relief. The court noted that the district court seemingly disregarded the harm an injunction would cause to DOI and those depending on DOI's services. While the class members' entitlement to an accounting was not in doubt, the court found that the equities and harms involved in this case did not, on balance, justify requiring DOI to take such a drastic step; therefore, the district court abused its discretion in issuing the disconnection order.”

The court of appeals’ holding in this case was an appropriate decision that shows how the parties’ interests are balanced with the public’s interests.  Requesting an injunctive relief of this nature for a government office may be equal to asking a government office to close its offices while ligation is pending.   Thus, security breaches in the government’s computer networks might not trigger the approval of an injunctive relief such the one requested in this case because people’s interests are at stage.

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