By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
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 , 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
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