Los Angeles plans to shift records from software to Google

The Los Angeles City Council will decide whether to shift e-mails and other public records from its antiquated records retention software to a Google service which experts say could improve public access. The police department is concerned that sensitive arrest records would not be secure in the event of the shift. -DB

Los Angeles Times
July 17, 2009
By David Zahniser and Phil Willon

Frustrated by a slow and antiquated computer system, the city of Los Angeles is weighing a plan to replace its e-mail and records retention software with a service provided by Google, a move that could allow the Internet giant to retain sensitive records transmitted by the police and other municipal agencies.

If approved by the City Council, responsibility for protecting the internal data and public records would be shifted from the city to Google, according to a report submitted this week to a council committee that will weigh the proposed $7.25-million contract.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa favors the effort to modernize the e-mail system, which his spokesman, Matt Szabo, described as “Pac-Man-era technology.”

The current system “has got to be the slowest, most inefficient, crash-prone e-mail system in the history of mankind,” Szabo added.

Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Lt. John Romero said it would be inappropriate for his agency to comment while a contract is being negotiated. But acting City Administrative Officer Ray Ciranna, the city’s top financial advisor, said the LAPD has raised questions about Google’s ability to shield sensitive arrest information.

“Of all the city agencies, they certainly have been the one that’s the most concerned,” Ciranna said. “They don’t want any information that, for any reason, gets un-encrypted and you have sensitive information being leaked out.”

Washington, D.C., is the only major city using Google e-mail and office applications, but others are contemplating a switch, according to a Google official. The applications and data would be housed on Google servers, not on city property, and accessible via presumably secure Internet connections.

‘Cloud computing’

That system, known as “cloud computing,” would eliminate the need for the city to store programs or information on individual in-house computers. “Government agencies at all levels—federal, state and city—are looking to cloud computing as a way to advance innovation while decreasing costs,” Google spokeswoman Aviva Gilbert said.

The contract, which could cover a maximum of five years, would need approval from the full council and Villaraigosa’s signature. A high-level official with the city’s Information Technology Agency, which has handled the bidding process, said he expects the LAPD to join the Google e-mail system once it receives assurance from the state’s Department of Justice that arrest records will be protected.

“Until they get the full approval, they can’t join the e-mail system,” said Kevin Crawford, assistant general manager of the technology agency.

The contract will come up for review Tuesday before the council’s three-member Information Technology and General Services Committee.

Gilbert, the Google spokeswoman, said cloud computing has proved to be reliable and secure, with Motorola, Genentech and other companies adopting it.

Still, questions about such applications were raised by the media earlier this week after Twitter Inc.’s cloud-based computer system was broken into and confidential documents were copied. The hacker appears to have guessed the password for an employee’s personal e-mail account and worked from there to steal confidential company documents.

Internally, city officials also have asked whether Google, as keeper of the records, would be forced to respond to public information requests. “Release of this data by Google without appropriate review by the city attorney could compromise the city’s position regarding pending or potential litigation,” the report states.

City officials hope to have the Google system installed before Dec. 31. If the council misses that deadline, the city could be required to pay for continuing maintenance on the current GroupWise e-mail system. City workers have complained that the existing system crashes frequently and lacks sufficient memory, among other things.

Peter Scheer, director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said the switch to Google also could improve access to public information, especially by attorneys or reporters.

Google has “remarkably sophisticated” search capabilities and provides a huge amount of database storage at minimal cost, Scheer said. “If you’re asking for information, it’s more likely you’ll get a more complete and accurate response to your request, sooner rather than later.”

Paul Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents the city’s police officers, said the LAPD has not discussed the proposed contract with his union and cautioned it to move in a “deliberate manner.”

‘Serious breach’

Last month, the league accused the LAPD of a “serious breach of privacy” involving officers in the 77th Street Division’s Gang Enforcement Unit. Officers in that unit who were being audited found that their names and serial numbers had been sent to recipients of the Police Commission’s meeting agenda, according to a letter to officers.

“If the department were to have their information compromised, it would seriously impact the public’s confidence in our department and impact our ability to police the city,” Weber said.

Scheer said it’s in Google’s own financial interest to ensure that data remain secure. If the company’s systems suffer any sort of breach, they could potentially lose billions of dollars of business. “The bigger Google is, the more careful they are going to be about protection of rights and privacy and rights of access,” he said.

Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times