The San Diego City Attorney’s office has updated the system it uses to track criminal cases with software created and used by the San Diego County District Attorney. Authorities pushed for the city’s upgrade in order to enhance communication between the two law enforcement agencies.
But when it comes to discussing the system with the public, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis are not on the same page. Goldsmith held a news conference Friday and paraded the software’s inner-workings in front of media. Meanwhile, Dumanis’ office won’t talk about it.
Although the software made news on Friday, I’ve been talking about it for awhile behind the scenes. A month ago, I contacted the District Attorney’s Office and requested more information about the software’s structural design. I wanted to know what kind of information is collected by the case management system, or in other words, what information does the software track besides a defendant’s name, a prosecutor’s name and a case number?
I requested the information under the California Public Records Act. The law compels public agencies to allow access to records unless “not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.” Some records are automatically exempt from disclosure, but the law requires officials to work with the requestor to “provide suggestions for overcoming any practical basis for denying access to the records or information sought.” The law also requires agencies to “describe the information technology and physical location in which the records exist.”
The District Attorney’s Office denied my request late last month — refusing to provide any information about the case management system. The following is an excerpt from the explanation that the office is required by law to submit to me:
“Public disclosure of the [system’s layout] would also significantly increase the threat to … an effective attack by ‘hackers’ seeking to compromise the system’s security. The threat of system penetration is not hypothetical but quite real, and quite constant. For this reason, the public interest in maintaining the [system’s] confidentiality outweighs any public interest in its disclosure.”
Officials from the District Attorney’s Office have repeatedly declined to provide any description of the security attacks, except that they happen daily. Are these incidents of spam e-mail or malicious attacks specifically targeted at the case management system? The officials declined to comment on that question.
I asked some colleagues in the journalism world who are more experienced with data security about Dumanis’ denial. The journalists said disclosing the information could increase the security risk if the case management system had mediocre defenses from hackers. Otherwise, disclosing the information should not threaten the system’s security.
Before Goldsmith’s press conference, I met with Ron Moskowitz, the District Attorney’s chief information officer and the person who oversees the technical security of the case management system. Moskowitz insisted that any disclosure of the system’s design — even describing the type of information stored by the system — would increase the risk for malicious attacks.
“We do our best to provide a secure environment,” Moskowitz said. “The more information you give out, the greater the risk becomes.”
Goldsmith’s office obviously disagrees with that level of caution. The news conference showed that his office is less concerned with the risk of disclosing the system’s basic design to the public.
At the press conference, Assistant City Attorney David Greenberg led reporters through a visual tour of the case management system. Again, the system is almost identical to the system used by the District Attorney’s Office. Several other reporters attended the press conference and so did a few TV news stations. That’s right. Goldsmith allowed people to photograph the internal design of the case management system.
I went to Goldsmith’s new conference partially on the advice of Dumanis spokesman Steve Walker. He told me Goldsmith’s demonstration would give me some information that had been previously denied by the District Attorney’s Office.
“Absolutely I see the irony,” Walker said after the news conference, referring to the information disclosed at the press conference.
Gina Coburn, a spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, said the press conference was designed with some security precautions in mind. Greenberg showed only a couple parts of the system and used one adjudicated case to protect the confidentiality of current cases.