Computer crash causes police to collect less license plate data

Tuesday, September 01, 2015 by

The Oakland Police Department decided to collect less license plate data after their license plate reader (LPR) computer became overloaded with information and crashed.

The department decided to impose a data retention limit of six months. The limit was imposed in April 2015. Before April, no limit was in place, meaning the police keep license plate data from years ago.(1)

The LPR computer is a Windows XP with an 80GB hard drive. The 80GB drive was overflooded with data, creating a glitch in the system. Although an internal 1TB hard drive costs a mere $50, the state agency is required to go through long and scrupulous public procedure before purchasing one.(1)

“We don’t just buy stuff from Amazon as you suggested,” Sgt. Dave Burke said to Ars Technica. “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.”(1)

“Looking back at a year doesn’t help you solve a case,” he added. “There is no plan to store the data beyond six months. The investigators are not looking for data beyond six months. It does us no good to have these datasets if we do not mine them for intelligence.”(1)

These remarks were reassuring to privacy advocates, who have been advocating for imposed data retention limits for quite some time. Although collecting license plate data may seem harmless, it can have a dangerous, accumulative effect over time.

Where a person spends the majority of their time doesn’t just reveal where they are, but the kind of person that they are. This type of location-based data can shed light on where a person works, their religious beliefs, medical history and political affiliations – information that most people would like to be kept private.

Computer glitches usually create problems. In this particular instance, however, the computer glitch was a fix.

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