License Plate Data Mining By Police Partially Curtailed By Red Tape After 80Gb Drive Got Full

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

TRS-80 Model 1Those who strongly advocate for both privacy and efficient government are sure to be perplexed.

Oakland Police, which has a License Plate Recognition system that gathers thousands of its citizens’ license plate data via cameras, decided to reduce their license plate data-mining retention time after the underlying hard drive storing the data filled up, crashing the storage system. The culprit was a desktop computer running Windows XP on an 80 gigabyte hard drive.

If that wasn’t enough the replacement of this hard drive, at least, was curtailed by a firewall of red tape that seems to have prevented the city from buying a replacement drive. A one terabyte hard-drive can easily be found for fifty dollars.

The Oakland Police Department utilizes a License Plate Recognition (LPR) System to record license plates and store data. The city equipped approximately thirty three police vehicles with the scanners, creating approximately 48,000 records per day. The police department considers it a success that .16% of all plates recorded result in a “hit” for wanted vehicles. Yet, before the database’s crash, the city had no limit on how long the data could be stored. In fact, Ars Technica made a public records request for the entire license plate database, which contained records from December 2010 to May 2014. OPD held, as evidenced by the data, 4,600,000 reads of 1,100,000 unique license plates. Ars brought a developer to port the data to a searchable map form where a license plate might be entered and a pattern showing where the vehicle’s reads occurred. Such information could be used against the registered owner due to proximity to controversial locations or providing information of when the R/O is away from home, a prelude to a possible burglary by an unscrupulous user of the data.

Ars Technica published an article listing technical aspects and may be read HERE.

But it wasn’t the efforts of civil libertarians or reporters who criticize government practices of surveillance that led to OPD’s change of heart. It was obsolescence and red tape that saved the day.

More recently, Ars interviewed Sergeant Dave Burke who is responsible for OPD’s LPR system. The city reduced its retention time from indefinite to six months due to the LPR’s Windows XP based server crashing because its 80Gb hard drive would become full. He stated the department had no money in the budget to buy an additional server. From Ars Technica’s Interview:

“Trying to do this outside of a budget cycle [is difficult],” he said. “The budget cycle doesn’t start until July [2016], which means it won’t happen until August, so you have to wait. Meanwhile our system is crashing—we went a few weeks when our system wasn’t capturing anything.”

“We don’t just buy stuff from Amazon as you suggested,” Burke added. “You have to go to a source, i.e., HP or any reputable source where the city has a contract. And there’s a purchase order that has to be submitted, and there has to be money in the budget. Whatever we put on the system, has to be certified. You don’t just put anything. I think in the beginning of the program, a desktop was appropriate, but now you start increasing the volume of the camera and vehicles, you have to change, otherwise you’re going to drown in the amount of data that’s being stored.”

It is a truly perplexing situation at OPD. While it is good to hail at least a partial victory in the mass hoovering of data of the population by reducing this data retention to six months, it is, alas, also rather anti-climactic that it was stereotypical government dysfunction and incompetence that facilitated it.

We could go a step further and ask why sensitive data was held on a machine having an operating system that was new nearly fifteen years ago where support and security updates have ended, but that might be too much to ask it seems. One also has to wonder how the city could spend probably over a hundred thousand dollars on a LPR system but cannot afford to upgrade the server for several hundred dollars because there is no money in the $176,000,000.00 budget.

I never thought obsolescence and red tape would be good tools of liberty.

By Darren Smith


Ars Technica

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11 thoughts on “License Plate Data Mining By Police Partially Curtailed By Red Tape After 80Gb Drive Got Full”

  1. Forget the city budget. Compare it to the revenue that the darn system generates. They probably should not be doing it, but it is absurd that they cannot spend $1000 for a system that generates many multiples of that. It reminds me of Los Angeles, where folks wait in long lines for hours to pay $100 traffic violations with $400 of additional fees tacked on, generating millions of dollars a day, but cannot staff the clerks office with enough representatives at $25 an hour, an expense that would turn out to be rounding error, so that citizens don’t waste half of their day. It makes no sense.

  2. BFM, The most efficient way to take control of our govt. is to put them on an all protein diet, not tax money for fat. Of course, when that happens the FIRST cuts politicians make are firefighters and street cops. They never cut the fat cat bureaucrats watching porn in their office cubicle.

  3. bigfatmike: The way I read it, Paul C. Schulte was glad the Oakland Police system failed. He wasn’t casting aspersions on the TRS-80. Speaking of which, a friend of mine used a TRS-80 right into the early ’90s to keep his newspaper’s circulation address list up. It was his own personal computer, since the owners of the newspaper refused to fund the purchase of a new machine for this purpose. This local paper was owned by the New York Times!

  4. “Loved the pic of the Trash-80. Brought back memories. This is a crap system and I am glad it failed.”

    Was it any worse than numerous other systems of the day? How is your Atari running? When was the last time you cranked up that Commodore? Do you even remember what you did with the Amiga, Sinclair, Cromemco?

    As for failing, is their any other name from that time that survived – aside from maybe Apple?

    I do have an interest in all this. My ex wife used a second hand TRS80 for all her papers, take home exams, and articles in law school. In all that time there was only one desperate moment when she forgot to save a take home exam, and shut off the machine. The rudimentary word processor she was using did not prompt her to save before exiting and she lost an entire weekend of work. Fortunately, her professor simply told her to finish and turn it in ASAP.


    1. bfm – I started with 4 count them 4 kilobite of ram memory and was so excited when I could expand to 8, later 16. I wrote a lot of games for that machine. I did write some papers on it and forgetting to save was a critical flaw. When I finally got a PC I really started cranking. I was the first in my department to do my thesis on a computer and the speed at which I could do corrections convinced the department to go to computers the next year. 🙂

      1. ” I was the first in my department to do my thesis on a computer and the speed at which I could do corrections convinced the department to go to computers the next year. ”

        You see, down deep your really are a progressive!

        My ex wife had a similar experience. At our expense we bough a pc compatible for her to use at work. She was fast and accurate anyway. But the pc and Word Perfect allowed her to turn in memos while other associates were still fuming at the word processing department. Soon other partners were buying personal computers – usually for their secretaries use – and eventually the firm converted to pcs on everyone’s desk.

        Now, partners drafting on yellow legal pads for entry by the word processing department is largely a memory of a by-gone era.

  5. Well, this does suggest a partial solution for government spying on citizens – restrict their budget.

    Who needs legislation or litigation? Just cut back their budgets till they only have funds to allocate to essential services.

  6. Loved the pic of the Trash-80. Brought back memories. This is a crap system and I am glad it failed.

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