Online Mugshot Extortion is its Own Crime

At Safe Shepherd a large part of my role as community manager is helping our users remove their private information from the people search and databroker websites that sell it.  I don’t own the tights or cape, but on my good days I feel like Batman, saving innocent people from the villainous companies that profit off of their personal information.  The databroker industry can be more than a little shady, but all the major players still provide ways for people to remove their personal information from their databases.   Even in jeans and sneakers, this Batman can provide privacy for hundreds of people on any given day.  However there are some bad guys on the Internet that even Batman can’t save you from.

Over the past few months, users have reached out to me asking to be removed from a site called Mugshots.com.  Mugshots (and similar sites) scrape police databases for mug shots and then display the pictures and other arrest information on their website.  Many police records are legally required to be made public (registered sex offenders), but having every arrest record published to the Internet becomes an invasion of privacy.  Due to regulations most Americans don’t have to worry about an arrest record tarnishing their reputation, but unfortunately for citizens of Florida, the state’s Sunshine Laws make all arrest records public, meaning that if you were ever arrested in Florida your mug shot will be on the Internet – forever.

Last month I was contacted by Linda and Robert about removing their son Ben’s arrest record from Mugshots.com.  Ben had been arrested for public intoxication in Miami, and now thanks to Mugshots, the arrest was prominently displayed on the first page of Google when anyone searched for his name.  Since other people search websites provide a free way to remove information from their database, I assumed it would be the same with Mugshots.com.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I quickly found out that in order to remove your mug shot from Mugshots.com you are required to pay a third party affiliate $399 to conduct the removal.  This surprised me because no other databroker website can charge to conduct opt-outs (except US Search with their Privacy Lock product, but this was quickly shut down by the FTC).  With no other options available to remove your picture from Mugshots.com, paying $399 to remove your record more than borders on extortion.

Perhaps the most concerning part of Mugshots.com is that your picture is posted immediately after the arrest, so even if you are never convicted of the crime, your mug shot will still be immortalized on the Internet…unless of course you pay the $399.  With no other options available to remove Ben’s arrest record, Linda and Robert decided to pay the third party affiliate unpublishmugshots.com to conduct the removal.  After their check cleared, Ben’s entry disappeared from Mugshots.com 24 hours later.

Laws around data aggregation are blurry and the expectation that sites like Mugshots will police themselves is naive and dangerous.  Amidst the current maelstrom of Internet legislation (SOPA, PIPA, and now the Intellectual Property Attache Act), an enormous challenge will be passing laws that incubate innovation while still protecting basic rights like privacy.

For us to solve the Mugshots problem, we need your help standing up for what is right.  Share this post and help stop the extortion of people who aren’t given a choice.

-Noah

@noahtorious

noah@safeshepherd.com