By Charles Wilson
The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS - On a counter in the U.S. District Court clerk's office sit a computer and a heavy iron stamper used to imprint the court seal on legal documents - symbols of changing times at the federal courthouse.
The days when lawyers and messengers have to race to file papers before the courthouse closes are fading as printed records give way to online filing, although fully electronic records are still years away.
On Sept. 1, the Indianapolis court moves a bit closer to that reality when documents in all civil cases filed on or after July 1, 2002, must be filed online.
The change is part of the E-Government Act of 2002, aimed at using information technology to make government more accessible and increase efficiency.
Twenty-one district and 55 bankruptcy courts already use the online system, which allows lawyers with a court-issued password to file documents 24 hours a day.
The public can view and download many documents on the Internet. An online account is required, and the government charges a fee of 7 cents per page accessed.
While advocates like the accessibility, some experts say it could create the potential for abuse.
The online documents are encrypted and a login code is required to view them, said Greg Barnes, the court's system manager. Court files are stored on file servers in three cities and backed up instantly on computers in Washington.
No firewall can make a system completely impenetrable to a determined hacker, said Bruce Schneier, of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. in San Jose, Calif.
Still, Schneier said, he comes down in favor of public access.
"Just because there's a security risk doesn't mean you shouldn't do it," he said.
The real issue is not security, but policy, argued Lauren Weinstein, of People for Internet Responsibility. The wealth of personal information in some documents could be a gold mine for identity thieves, stalkers and other abusers.
Most district courts require that sensitive data such as Social Security and bank account numbers be removed before documents are filed either online or on paper, said Wendy Carpentier, who administers the Indianapolis court's online system.
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