NYPD can’t count cash they’ve seized because it would crash computers

From Ars Technica:

The New York City Police Department takes in millions of dollars in cash each year as evidence, often keeping the money through a procedure called civil forfeiture. But as New York City lawmakers pressed for greater transparency into how much was being seized and from whom, a department official claimed providing that information would be nearly impossible—because querying the 4-year old computer system that tracks evidence and property for the data would “lead to system crashes.”

Even with the system, however, the NYPD’s Assistant Deputy Commissioner Robert Messner told the New York City Council’s Public Safety Committee that the department had no idea how much money it took in as evidence, nor did it have a way of reporting how much was seized through civil forfeiture proceedings—where property and money is taken from people suspected of involvement in a crime through a civil filing, and the individuals whom it is seized from are put in the position of proving that the property was not involved in the crime of which they were accused.

So NYPD has spend millions on an expensive database that prevents them from conducting accountability queries on seized evidence? That’s an interesting design choice.


CryptDB, a project out of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, (CSAIL) may be a solution for this problem. In theory, it would let you glean insights from your data without letting even your own personnel “see” that data at all, said Dr. Sam Madden, CSAIL director, on Friday.

“The goal is to run SQL on encrypted data, you don’t even allow your admin to decrypt any of that data and that’s important in cloud storage, Madden said at an SAP-sponsored event at Hack/reduce in Cambridge, Mass.

Barb Darrow, “You want to crunch top-secret data securely? CryptDB may be the app for that

This is super interesting work that, if successful, could open a lot of sensitive data to mining. However, it needs to be extensively tested.

One thing that is baked into this product, however, is the assumption that large-scale data mining is good or appropriate. I’m not taking a position that it’s wrong, but note that there isn’t any discussion – that I can find – where journalists are thinking through whether such sensitive information should even be mined in the first place. We (seemingly) are foreclosing this basic and very important question and, in the process, eliding a whole series of important social and normative questions.


Although some of the core supporters of that group are prone to violence and criminal behaviour, Catt has never been convicted of criminal conduct in connections to the demonstrations he attended. Nonetheless, Catt’s personal information was held on the National Domestic Extremism Database that is maintained by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. The information held on him included his name, age, description of his appearance and his history of attending political demonstrations. The police had retained a photograph of Mr Catt but it had been destroyed since it was deemed to be unnecessary. The information was accessible to members of the police who engage in investigations on “Smash EDO”.

In the ruling the Court of Appeal departs from earlier judgments by mentioning that the “reasonable expectation of privacy” is not the only factor to take into account in determining whether an individual’s Article 8 (1) right has been infringed. In surveying ECtHR case law, the Court noted that it is also important to check whether personal data has been subjected to systematic processing and if it is entered in a database. The rationale to include consideration of the latter two categories is that in this way authorities can recover information by reference to a particular person. Therefore, “the processing and retention of even publicly available information may involve an interference with the subject’s article 8 rights.” Since in the case of Catt, personal data was retained and ready to be processed, the Court found a violation of Article 8 (1) that requires justification.

Carolin Moeller, “Peaceful Protester’s personal data removed from extremism database

The removal of Mr. Catt’s data from these databases is a significant victory for him and all those involved in fighting for citizens’ rights. However, the case acts as a clear lens through which we can see how certain facets of the state are actively involved in pseudo-criminalizing dissent: you’re welcome to say or do anything, so long as you’re prepared to be placed under perpetual state suspicion.


What Sophisticated Security Tests Should Look Like

Facebook and a few other large corporations understand just how serious contemporary data intrusions and exfiltrations are. They spend a lot of money preparing for attacks. Why, if private companies, are taking collected data so seriously do our governments seem to remain so cavalier with their data collection, retention, and security practices?


Police Look Up Woman’s License 425 Times

We should never forget that a large number of data/privacy breeches start from within a bureaucracy/organization. When an audit was performed on the drivers license database in Minnesota, auditors found that a staggering number of officers had ‘checked up’ on a woman’s profile. From the article on this:

The numbers were astounding: One hundred and four officers in 18 different agencies from around the state had accessed her driver’s license record 425 times in what could be one of the largest private data breaches by law enforcement in history.

The Department of Public Safety sent letters to all 18 agencies demanding an Internal Affairs investigation of the 104 officers. If the cops are found to be in violation of federal privacy law, they could be fired.

It isn’t enough to assume that the police are all knights in shining armour, incapable of doing wrong. No: they’re people, with all the expected foibles and failings. Give them information and powers and they will abuse them. The only questions are when and with what consequence.