THE POLICE STATE
The week of December 7, 2014
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Why the online mugshot industry will never die

By Kevin Collier

There may be no truer test of America’s character than whether my friend’s ex-boyfriend Steve (name changed, of course) can ever live down that time in 2011 when he got arrested for a DUI.

When Steve asked out my friend the following year, she quickly deep-Googled him, as most people do these days before relationships get serious. Steve’s arrest photo popped right up on WVJails.info. “I almost didn’t date him,” she told me.

Steve admitted that this was far from the first time his mugshot returned to haunt him. There were other girls who had considered the photo reason to maybe not date him, he told me over Facebook message. And he was concerned about it “possibly having a negative effect on job prospects in the future.” Thankfully, he said, the photo “vanished” shortly after he wrote his governor—or, at least, it wasn’t as easy to find.

The online mugshot industry borders on extortion. It thrives of regret and search-engine optimization, often forcing individuals to take proactive action to ensure their name isn’t closely associated with a regrettable moment in their lives. They’re a source of embarrassment for those who appear on them and a target of privacy advocates.

Mugshot sites are less likely to be one of the first Google hits than when the industry was rolling a few years ago, but they’re never going to disappear completely. This is a particularly American phenomenon, one where the Bill of Rights—such a defining tool of protection for Americans—is in deep conflict with itself.

A right to be forgotten?

Surely you’ve seen the dozens of websites with interchangeable names. Mugshots.com, Busted.com, criminalfaces.com. Each one presents a sea of faces recently thrown behind bars. Most of the people depicted inside are sad or removed; a few are grinning, some are obviously intoxicated. The world of mugshot sites capitalizes on geography at every scale, ranging from national (jail.org, gotbusted.net) to statewide (the aforementioned WVJails.info) to citywide (renomugs.com). Then there are the Facebook pages run by police departments that proudly display their big arrests like a hunter showing off a trophy kill. There are even novelty mugshot collections that fetishize arrests, like mughots.com.

These sites don’t make it clear how they get so many new names and photos so quickly, but jails that fill requests from local media for the previous night’s arrest records sometimes publish PDFs to save their employees the trouble.

The online mugshot industry borders on extortion. It thrives of regret and search-engine optimization.

Jason Watson, the guy who runs the site that originally published Steve’s story, WVJails.info, also runs the arre.st network of sites, which has a subdomain for 38 states, including West Virginia. Despite attempting to hide his identity by registering the sites through shell companies, he was identified in a 2013 class-action extortion lawsuit (settled out of court) on behalf of Ohio residents against five mugshot sites. It’s not a coincidence that he also runs the “reputation management” site U.S. Support Services, LLC, which will scrub someone’s name from sites like arre.st for $60 an hour.

I spoke with one West Virginia deputy sheriff about such sites. His department didn’t directly capitalize on mugshot availability, like those that put arrestees’ photos on Facebook pages, but he insisted that such records should be in the public domain.

“It’s weird that there’s a whole industry for it,” he said. “But you journalists can go through and pick through the day’s arrest records, names, and charges, and see what’s newsworthy,” he said. “Why should a picture of somebody be any different?”

Once somebody has legal access to those photos, it’s almost impossible to take them down, said Lee Rowland, a staff attorney at the ACLU.

“First Amendment protections are so strong that once these images are made available, getting them back into the box is extraordinarily difficult,” Rowland said.

In the eternal debate over privacy rights versus those of free expression, Europe famously leans a little more to the former and the U.S. the latter. That’s how the E.U. managed to pass the so-called Right to Be Forgotten law, which compels Google to honor Europeans’ requests to bury certain unflattering search results.

In Europe, “we’ve seen tons of requests, not just from stores and average people, but from companies trying to hide evidence of past malfeasance, even crimes,” Rowland said. “Even for information like an arrest record, which documents government activity, there’s really no version of the Right to Be Forgotten that wouldn’t acutely violate our First Amendment values.”

“First Amendment protections are so strong that once these images are made available, getting them back into the box is extraordinarily difficult.” —Lee Rowland

A ‘dead’ industry

“You are about three years too late,” a gentleman who goes by Mugshot Barry, who runs a string of hyper-localized mugshot sites like Shastamugshots.com and Renomugs.com, told me. He was the only one of about a dozen webmasters to respond to my inquiries about who was still in the game and how much money they made. “It is a ‘dead’ industry.”

In one sense, he’s right. Since 2011, when Wired wrote an expose of sites that directly charge visitors to take down their photos, many of the most egregious types of mugshot sites have either closed up shop or changed their model. There’s a number of reasons for this. Several states, like Georgia and Oregon, passed laws to hamper them. The terms of that Ohio settlement required several sites to change their model to no longer directly request payment to take down mugshots. The FBI announced it was looking into the practice of mugshot sites that “extort” victims.

Perhaps most importantly, the private sector got involved. Google changed its algorithm to deprioritize mugshots in search results, and payment companies like Visa and Mastercard pledged not to process money if it was directly for such purposes.

But the effect was moderate. Only a handful of states passed such laws before the movement seemed to lose steam, and certainly no federal legislation ever got anywhere. The idea that sites can no longer accept direct payment to remove a photo is laughable, as there’s a clear symbiotic relationship where you still pay a “reputation management” site to take it down.

Only a handful of states passed such laws before the movement seemed to lose steam, and certainly no federal legislation ever got anywhere.

Unquestionably, Google’s algorithm change has helped diminish the online mugshot industry’s ability to defame. That said, Steve’s mugshot is still online—I found it with relative ease, though it’s no longer on the first page when you Google his name.

I reached out to an employer I know in Kentucky to see what kind of effects these mugshot sites can have on anyone looking for a job.

“I don’t really use mugshot sites as a source when looking to hire somebody,” he said. But just like a prospective suitor, he does Google applicants before calling them in for an interview. “If I just happened to notice an applicant in there that was in the hiring process, yeah, it would deter me from considering them.”

A new ad model

Most of the sites in from “the pay-to-remove era have gone offline,” Mugshot Barry told me. His sites are based on ad revenue from clicks. They take down users if they prove their innocence, and they don’t allow comments “[b]ecause it is not fair to the defendant,” as one reads.

His sites rely on regular clicks, not from search engines, to make money, he said, and are largely independent. “The Achilles heel is that the individual sheriff department are increasingly declining to release scrapeable data online,” he said. “That results in a slow but steady traffic loss. I’m fine letting the sites die that natural death, there is no reason to hasten it.”

Are all such sites slowly dying? It’s hard to tell. Jason Watkins didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, and the one person with that name in his town in a public phone search didn’t answer or call me back. The number for his “reputation management” company goes straight to voicemail, too. His site looks glitchy, with photos of the same people listed with different names. His Twitter account updates frequently, but it’s clearly a bot doing the work. Watkins have stepped away a while ago, leaving bots do his dirty work for him, scraping and publishing mugshots without his interference?

Regardless, it’s clear that more and more mugshots are still being added to the Internet every day, even if the pace and their searchability has slowed. And the vast majority of those pictures aren’t leaving the Internet anytime soon—at least not in America.

Photos via Christopher/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), Hamed Saber/Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Sascha Kohlmann/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) | Remix by Rob Price