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Mug shot misuse on the internet: how to end the exploitation

In this article published in Information & Communications Technology Law, Morgan Vasigh documents the online abuse of mug shots, known as ‘scraping’.  When a person is arrested, part of the procedure is to have a ‘booking photo’ taken of the accused.  In the US these are stored on arresting agency websites and are publicly available.  There has been a rise in the practice of ‘scraping’ mug shots from the public records and posting them live on websites such as ‘bustedmugshot.com’ where anyone can chance upon a photo of a loved one or friend who may have inadvertently committed a minor offence.  Thousands of individuals have been affected by this phenomenon in terms of employability and reputation, and are having to pay specialist companies to remove the photos from public view.  Vasigh discusses the issues and Florida law surrounding ‘scraping’ and makes recommendations for change.

Mug shot sites create revenue by advertising.  They use adept search engines to drive traffic towards their site, one site stating it received over 15 million page views in one month.  Adverts promoting mug shot sites are also placed on other sites, creating direct links to the mug shot site.  Mug shot websites charge arrestees to remove their photo and, by doing so, generate large amounts of revenue.  There is also a tendency for mug shot sites to refer arrestees to an apparent external ‘reputation vendor’, which remove mug shots.  There is however some doubt as to whether reputation fixing companies are truly independent or whether they are in cahoots with the mug shot companies themselves.

The creation of the mug shot industry has raised legal questions about commercial exploitation and misappropriation of photographs and identities for advertising and financial gain.  Vasigh argues that in doing so, mug shot industries are flouting several Florida statues which prevent publicity for ‘unjust enrichment’ and ‘unauthorized commercial exploitation of one’s identity… to prevent harmful or excessive commercial use’.  In the article Vasigh documents historical cases of statutory misappropriation of identity, likening them to the mug shot industry and stating his case as to why he believes this practice is illegal.

In Florida, there are exceptions to misappropriation laws, relating to artistic works, and also to newsworthy items of public interest.  In the case of mug shots however, there is little connection to art and the blanket approach to publicising photos weakens the case for newsworthiness. The internet has propelled the mug shot from the filing cabinet in the County Sheriff’s office to instant internet visibility.  ‘Scraping’ is causing privacy violations for many people, some of whom are not convicted, or were otherwise good citizens who had a minor run-in with the law...  In February 2013, a new Florida bill was proposed which stipulated that all personal data should be removed within 15 days of an accused being acquitted, or charges being dropped.  The bill did not get passed due to implications for Sheriffs, journalists and for lack of remit on sites publishing from outside the US.  It also had not covered the issue of reputation fixers.  Several other US states have successfully challenged the mug shot industry.  Vasigh concludes with a comprehensive list of suggestions for Florida state legislature regarding mug shot abuse, expressly prohibiting ‘scraping’ and charging for removal of personal details on commercial websites.

As one court said ‘A mug shot ‘is a vivid symbol of criminal accusation, which…is often equated with…guilt’.  Vasigh points out that anyone can be affected from a straight A Ivy League student to a retired volunteer in an animal shelter.  He believes the mug shot industry is exploitative and has laid down a route by which it should be stopped.

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* Read the full article online:http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13600834.2013.855064

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