A new industry has sprung up in recent years: Websites that post nothing but mugshots. They're popular -- people like to see other people in embarrassing moments — except with those who have their mugshots posted. In Chicago, the sites also wore out their welcome with the county sheriff. They seemed to be crashing his website.
Around 4 o'clock on a recent Tuesday afternoon, the assembly line at Cook County jail gets started with processing inmates. In the next few hours, 263 people would pass through here.
At the photo station, a sheriff's deputy pulled up each man’s record on his computer, and snapped a couple of pictures to add.
Some of them look like shakedown operations: Mugshots.com has a big “unpublish mugshot” link right at the top of its homepage — for fees that start at $400.
Late last year, those sites seemed to be crashing the Cook County Sheriff’s inmate locator site. Automated systems were trying to suck the photos up faster than the county’s server could respond.
“It is a very important part of our site,” says Ben Breit, the Sheriff’s communication director, who runs the website. “I would argue that it is the most important part of our site.”
People use the inmate locator to find friends and relatives who have been arrested, he says. “That is also the main conduit through which family and friends can register to visit those people.”
The Sheriff solved the crashing problem, by installing a “captcha” — a prompt forcing users to type in a randomly-chosen bunch of letters and numbers, to prove they’re human.
However, the websites still have the pictures.
The results have been uneven. Mugshot websites lean on the same legal principles as news media: Access to public information and the freedom to publish it.
Newspapers run mugshots too. Matthew Waite, now a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska, built one of the first galleries when he worked at the Tampa Bay Times. He says the traffic to those pages was huge.
“It’s hard to argue that people aren’t interested in these,” he says. “But the question is, how much can you exploit that interest for profit? Is putting advertising on those pages untoward? That seems less of a problem to me than putting people’s mugshots online and then charging to have it taken down.”
Even the shakedown schemes are hard to outlaw, says Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Center at Harvard.
“These activities are morally reprehensible,” he says. “But when you try to dig down to the level of what’s actually illegal, it turns out to be quite elusive.”
What has worked is shame. Google had inadvertently fueled the extortion racket: When you searched someone’s name, any mugshots showed up as top results: A big incentive to pay for removal.
Last fall, Google tweaked its algorithm. Mugshot results got exiled to the back pages. Around the same time, when the New York Times did a big story on the mugshot racket, payment services like PayPal and American Express promised to stop doing business with mugshot-takedown companies.
Today, a lot of the sites no longer offer removal services. The exception, mugshots.com, is based in the British West Indies.