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MUGSHOTS: How Much Control Do You Have Over Your Online Identity?

Monday, Oct. 7, 2013

Of the many emerging online industries, this one may be a surprise: online mug shot databases. At sites like JustMugshots, visitors can search through these databases — which include anyone who has been arrested — and view mug shots, name, arrest location, age, and charges. The owners of these websites claim they are providing a valuable public service; “Everyone has a right to know if your babysitter has been arrested,” is a common catch phrase. The flip side to this “service” is the crippling effect that these databases have on those with arrest records: even those who were not convicted, or otherwise had their record expunged, find their job prospects severely crippled. These sites depend on this debilitating effect for revenue, and do so by charging anywhere from $40 to $400 to remove the mug shots. In the wake of a great deal of criticism, the mug shot sites are quick to argue that arrest documents, including mug shots, are of public record and to prevent their publishing is unlawful on Constitutional grounds. Are there some types of public information that should not be actively promoted or monetized? Is charging for the removal of the photos a legitimate business practice, or the equivalent of extortion?

  Kirk: Of course there is public information that shouldn’t be actively promoted. The primary concern with the emergence of “Mug Shot” sites is they don’t tell the full story. Take for example, a person who was wrongly accused of a crime, or otherwise a victim of circumstance or error. These sites offer no protection for such a person, other than to empty their pockets and give into the site owners’ shakedown tactics. The integrity of public records leaves no room for the ulterior motives of these mug shot sites.

  Patrick: I take the site owners' Constitutional claims to have considerable weight. Yes, this behavior is certainly exploitative and probably does more harm than good, but freedom of the press covers even those who are out there for a quick buck. Kudos to Google, for adjusting their algorithm to push down mug shot sites in search results, and PayPal, Discover, MasterCard, and the other companies that refuse to do business with them. Mug shot sites are free to publish what they like, but it doesn’t mean we have to give them the forum to do so.

Mugged by a Mug Shot Online

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