Public information document requests often cost money: $10 here for some photocopied documents, $50 there for an additional few hundred pages. But it came as a shock to Gawker Media writer Andy Cush when the Texas city of McKinney -- where that white cop waved his gun at unarmed black teenagers in swimsuits -- demanded payment before providing the police department emails Cush requested.
The price? $79,229.09.
Emails maintained by the city before March 2014 “are not in a format that is searchable by City personnel,” a private attorney representing the city said in a letter to Cush. So a programmer would have to be hired to execute the grueling task of searching through old emails. At $28.50 an hour, the letter said, the task would demand 2,231 hours of said programmer’s time.
“This is really one for the record books,” said the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, Peter Scheer. The nonprofit organization advocates for the advancement of free speech and a more open and accountable government. “Anecdotally, we hear about off-the-charts cost estimates given by government agencies, but they’re the exception, not the norm,” he said.
The cost estimate left some software engineers scratching their heads.
“My immediately thoughts were, ‘Boy, I’d sure like that job!’ said systems engineer Adam Rippon of Oakland, who’s been building client server programs and custom operating systems for the last 17 years. “Then I realized it’s only $28.50 an hour.”
Rippon and other engineers said software programmers are likely to charge closer to $100 an hour for their services. Another thing: They’re unlikely to spend 2,231 hours working on an email search problem.
“That’s over a year’s work, which is insane,” Rippon said. “I’m willing to bet McKinney, Texas, isn’t using NSA-grade security. ... It’s not like they’re going to have to hack the server to get this information. So it should be something that’s relatively simple because the police officers were able to get into it to check their emails.”
The itemized costs includes $63,583.50 to pay programming personnel to “execute an existing program or to create a new program so the requested information may be accessed and copied,” and an additional $14,726.80 to cover the time a computer resource takes to execute the program.
The Times asked McKinney city officials how they arrived at the cost estimate and what email client the police department uses. A city spokeswoman said she was working to obtain that information.
Scheer said government agencies cite all kinds of reasons for high document retrieval costs, and outdated technology is the most common. Some agencies do indeed use computers or software from decades ago, created by firms that no longer exist. Others operate on government hand-me-downs that are clunky and cumbersome to navigate.
Still, the claim that 2,231 hours is needed for an email search is bound to draw skepticism.
In the worst case, Rippon said, someone would have to write a script that could run on every officer’s account and fetch every email they ever received. That would take a competent programmer about four hours to write. A generous estimation would stretch that to a week.
“Let’s say you have 12 officers. It would take about a day to run that script. Let’s say there are 120 officers, who all have nearly 15,000 emails. That would be about two weeks.”
Cybersecurity experts who spoke on background because they didn’t want to publicly comment on a government case said the city's numbers are too high for a single investigation related to email recovery. They’re so high that one would have to assume those scoping out the resources required for the job don’t actually have experience with computer security or evidence gathering. Which is strange, one expert said, because we’re talking about a police department.
There are other possible explanations, according to Scheer. Sometimes, typos happen, and it’s not unheard of for a government agency to misplace a comma or decimal point when issuing charges. It’s also not unheard of for agencies to artificially inflate the cost of documents to deter the public from seeing them.
“That would seem to be a very plausible explanation for what’s going on here, but agencies shouldn’t be misrepresenting costs or any other facts under any law that I can think of,” Scheer said.
In any case, one software security expert told The Times that a programmer may not even be what McKinney needs. The department would have better luck hiring forensic personnel who specialize in data recovery, the kind of personnel one might find in a police department.
In the meantime, Gawker Media is filing an appeal, Cush said.